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In Chicago, striking teachers argue working conditions are key to improving schools

The Chicago teachers’ strike is now in its fifth day, with no clear indication of when it might end. Teachers are calling for changes that include increased compensation, but also go beyond it -- and they charge that the city’s new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, has shifted her position since coming into office in May. John Yang reports and talks to reporter Brandis Friedman of Chicago’s WTTW.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Chicago teachers strike enters its fifth day, with no clear sign it might end anytime soon.

    As John Yang reports, teachers are calling for changes that include, but also go beyond traditional pocketbook issues. And they charge that the city's new mayor is changing her position since coming into office last may.

  • John Yang:

    Thousands of striking Chicago teachers converged on City Hall today. As new Mayor Lori Lightfoot delivered her first budget, the teachers had their own spending priorities.

  • Jesse Sharkey:

    The people of the city of Chicago demand funding and resources to go to the services of the city. We have to have schools that work for our children. We need a budget which speaks to our priorities, not just the priorities of developers.

  • John Yang:

    For the fifth day, the strike canceled classes for more than 360,000 students in the country's third largest school district.

    The city and the Chicago Teachers Union are at odds over several issues, including higher salaries, smaller class sizes and the union's demand for additional support staff, including nurses, counselors, and librarians.

    Union president Jesse Sharkey rejected the mayor's call for teachers to return to classrooms.

  • Jesse Sharkey:

    She wants us to simply give up on some of the most basic things that we're asking for. And that's not the way labor negotiations work.

  • John Yang:

    Lightfoot was elected on a progressive agenda and an education platform that includes some of the very changes the union is asking for. Now she says the city can't afford them.

  • Lori Lightfoot:

    There's a finite amount of money that's available. You know, as you know, we're barely two years way from a moment where CPS was on the verge of insolvency. There's not an unlimited pool of money.

  • John Yang:

    Striking teachers say she has turned her back on her pledges.

  • Michelle Wells:

    We need things in our classroom that we're not getting. I have students that take medicine. I don't have a nurse to help me out, except for one day a week.

  • John Yang:

    Parents are also feeling the toll, scrambling to find day care for their kids as talks drag on. But some say they still stand behind the teachers.

  • Leah Songer:

    We know that it's a sacrifice that we need to make in order to support the teachers.

  • John Yang:

    With no end in sight, the union said they will back on the picket lines again tomorrow.

    Negotiators have been meeting for several hours every day since the strike began.

    Education reporter Brandis Friedman has been covering the strike for "Chicago Tonight" on PBS member station WTTW.

    Brandis, thanks so much for joining us.

    What's your sense of how far apart the two sides are?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    You know, John, it's kind of hard to tell.

    Over the weekend, it seemed like we took a few steps forward. And then, Monday and Tuesday, it seems like we took another couple of steps back.

    I know that they — both sides are saying they feel like they have made some progress, but then something would happen, like Mayor Lightfoot sent a mayor — sent a letter — excuse me — to CTU leadership a couple of days ago, saying, you know what? We have made progress. We have given you much of we have asked for — what you have asked for. Why don't you and teachers come back to work while we continue negotiating at the table?

    And we heard CTU president Jesse Sharkey and vice president Stacy Davis Gates say that they felt like that's not how negotiations work and that their hopes of progress had been dashed.

    But I think they are making some progress and they are working towards each other. But they're sort of buttoning up these last few days over exactly how far apart they are on what we know to be the sticking points.

  • John Yang:

    And some of the sticking points, I mean, it's not just the usual pocketbook issues of pay. It's things like class size, prep time, support staff.

    Why are those issues so important to the teachers?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    You know, the union says that they are looking to make — that they're on the precipice of one of the most important contracts for Chicago Public Schools, because they want this contract to be the one that makes Chicago Public Schools into what they keep referring to as the schools that Chicago students deserve.

    I think they have attempted to make the case, of course, that their working conditions are student learning conditions, and in the absence of these nurses, and librarians, and social workers and counselors, teaching the students, educating them is harder, because they're not getting all of their needs met.

    And so they see this as their responsibility to take on and to get it in writing in the contract to improve the schools for their students.

  • John Yang:

    And this is the first big test for the new mayor, Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

    Some of the things that the union wants in the contract are things that she talked about, supported in her campaign. So why is this an issue now?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    So, she did support all of — much of what CTU is arguing for, but she didn't say, I'm going to put it in the CTU contract.

    So a lot of folks will say that some of what CTU is asking for, affordable housing, for example, doesn't belong in the teachers collective bargaining agreement.

    The teachers have argued that they want it in the contract because they don't trust politicians. Just because she campaigned on these issues doesn't mean that she's actually going to make good on them.

    For Mayor Lightfoot's part of it, she says that she campaigned on these issues, and that some of them have been written into the Chicago Public Schools' budget that was passed back in August. CTU says, that's not good enough, we need it in the contract, so that we have enforcement mechanisms to hold you accountable, to hold you to what you say.

  • John Yang:

    This is putting a hardship on a lot of parents in Chicago, who have got to find things for their kids to do during the day, now that classes have been canceled.

    How much support is there from the — for the teachers from the parents? And is there danger that it's going to go away as this goes on?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    You know, it's hard to say.

    Like, we know that a lot of the parents who do support CTU, they are vocal. There are multiple organizations in Chicago that have expressed their support. Some parents are on the picket line with their kids and CTU.

    Now, the city does work with some sister agencies to make sure that students have places to go, like the public library. And schools across the city have been opened and staffed by members or employees from central office, as well as principals, for the students who have to come to a school.

    And as far as whether or not, you know, they're going to lose parenting support, I know that not all parents do support CTU in this. Whether or not they are a majority or minority of all parents, it's hard to tell, of course.

    Not all of them support CTU, and they are struggling. But I don't think that the length of this strike is going to have either side change camps.

  • John Yang:

    Brandis Friedman from "Chicago Tonight" on WTTW, Brandis, thank you very much.

  • Brandis Friedman:

    You bet.

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