Constant dollars

Mayor of Chicago: teachers’ union made us a “laughing stock”

Chicago is the largest district in the country to close and the only major closed by a labor dispute.

It’s unclear whether the union’s decision will prompt educators elsewhere to follow suit as they see their own members catching the virus, which has already triggered smaller closures. But many elected Democrats across the country who supported the closures at the start of the pandemic insist K-12 schools must remain open during the Omicron wave – a repositioning that has created friction with unions in the United States. teachers, a key constituency of the party.

For now, hard-line teachers’ unions in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Sacramento are not demanding school closures like educators in Chicago are. The powerful California Teachers Association released a statement with Gov. Gavin Newsom last month pledging to “keep our classrooms open” in a state where campuses have been closed by the pandemic longer than almost anywhere in the country. Democratic leaders, from President Joe Biden to New York City Mayor Eric Adams, are giving a greater voice to the social and academic hardships faced by students who learn at home – and recognize that parents have little patience to return to class in school. line.

Tensions in Chicago are especially high for Lightfoot, a sharp-tongued reformist Democrat who pledged in 2019 to challenge the party’s political machine, which relies heavily on labor groups. She also doesn’t suffer from subtleties and appreciates the frankness of her allies and critics.

When a public registration application last month revealed how it routinely zapped its staff and email critics, voters and politicians across the city barely blinked. Even the allies are used to the mayor’s tone. “The mayor and I have always had a frankly honest working relationship,” Alderman Brendan Reilly said in an interview at the time.

But for some of those who work or negotiate with her, Lightfoot’s franchise has made her relationship with CTU – a group that has also occasionally upset her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel – unmanageable.

And at a press conference Wednesday night, Lightfoot, a former prosecutor, did what Chicagoans expected: She sank in.

“I will not allow them to take our children hostage,” she said of the teachers’ union. His concern centers on the many CPS students who come from underserved communities where access to the Internet or computing devices is not always available and whose families depend on children who receive two or three meals a day at the school. school.

Teachers, who were due to return to class on Wednesday, are concerned about safety after numerous reports of Covid testing after the vacation went sour and photos of FedEx drop boxes overflowing with test packages.

And union officials blamed the mayor for the shutdown that barred an estimated 330,000 students in the city’s public schools from their classrooms.

“The Lightfoot administration has been an enemy of public education here in Chicago,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said in an interview on Wednesday.

But even some of Lightfoot’s fiercest critics are siding with him in keeping schools open.

“I don’t think CTU will give Lightfoot a thumbs up even if it gives them everything they want,” said Chicago city councilor Raymond Lopez, who berated the mayor over everything from public safety to powers. urgently, in an interview. “Their mission is to obstruct this administration in a way that shames me. I can recognize when she’s doing something right, and they even refuse to do it.

Since her overwhelming election against CTU’s preferred progressive candidate nearly three years ago, Lightfoot has found herself at odds with the teachers’ union at every turn. There was a 14-day strike during his first year in office, followed by constant disagreements over how to keep students in school when the pandemic erupted in 2020.

The CTU and the Lightfoot administration have been negotiating for months with little result.

“Anyone who thinks this teachers’ union is just a union hasn’t paid attention,” Lightfoot told POLITICO. “They believe themselves to be a political movement or a political party and this is the lens through which we have to see their every action.”

And in her Wednesday night press conference, the mayor said teachers who did not return to their classes on Friday would not be paid.

“We will not pay you to give up your posts and your children when they and their families need us most,” she said. “It won’t happen under my watch.”

Lightfoot said “hundreds of millions” of dollars had been spent to make Chicago schools safe for students and school staff during the pandemic. Ventilation systems have been improved and schools have implemented HEPA filters and masks and social distancing procedures, she said.

The teachers’ union insists that the improvements do not go far enough. Gates said the city is withholding too much federal dollars – Chicago public schools have received around $ 2 billion in federal Covid relief funding – which should be spent on schools.

“I can’t stress this enough: we have billions of dollars to help us get through Covid that we don’t see in our school communities,” Gates said. “We don’t see widespread testing. You don’t see any vaccination clinics, especially in the postal codes of this city that are suffering. ”

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez acknowledged that the city “agrees” that more needs to be done to strengthen Covid testing. District officials said Wednesday evening they needed to prioritize testing on symptomatic and unvaccinated students given limited supplies.

Still, Lightfoot disagrees that the friction between his office and the teachers’ union has something to do with politics or his leadership. She isn’t the first Chicago mayor, after all, to run into educators. There was also a teachers’ strike during Emanuel’s tenure.

“Anyone sitting in that seat, given who CTU is, would be in the same place as me. It is not a question of personality. It’s all about ego, ”said Lightfoot.