For the first time in seven years, teachers in the third-largest U.S. school district are expected to go on strike Thursday after contract negotiations between Chicago city officials and the Chicago Teachers Union hit a stalemate Tuesday night. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced Wednesday morning that classes at Chicago public schools will be canceled Thursday in anticipation of the strike.
Along with familiar issues such as contract length, benefits and class sizes, one of the core demands of the teachers union is not explicitly about their work environment, but rather community justice: access to affordable housing.
This contract negotiation marks the first time the union has expressly called on the city to address systemic housing equity (Illinois law restricts the set of issues over which teachers may legally strike). It's part of a growing movement, spearheaded by teacher and other labor unions, focused more broadly on issues affecting their community for what's often called "bargaining for the common good."
Teachers unions in Los Angeles and Minneapolis have already emphasized issues like affordable housing, restorative justice and sanctuary protections for immigrants in their contract negotiations.
Housing is especially critical in Chicago, where a mix of historic segregation and disinvestment in nonwhite communities, coupled with a growing affordable-housing crisis, has hit black residents especially hard; black residents were Chicago's largest demographic in 2000, but the population has shrunk by nearly a quarter since then, according to census data.
Among Chicago's black population that remains, thousands face increasingly few housing options. Doug Schenkelberg, executive director for the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, notes that roughly 81% of the district's homeless population are black students, though they comprise little more than a third of the overall student population.
According to the district's 2018 figures, more than 16,450 of its students experience some form of homelessness — and that's a conservative estimate, Schenkelberg said.
"We know that's an undercut, because that's a self-reported number," Schenkelberg said. Chicago's homeless youth population is more obscured because 90% of them are not necessarily living on the street but are "doubled up": sleeping in cars or on floors or relatives' couches in what are indoor but still itinerant situations.
Elementary special education teacher and CTU delegate Katie Osgood is among the CPS teachers who has students unsure of where they'll sleep at night.
"It's generally accepted that within the school system, it's important to make sure kids are fed," Schenkelberg said, citing federally funded breakfast and lunch programs. "There's no reason we shouldn't be talking about housing in the same way."
Teachers are demanding that the city commit to creating sustainable housing, housing subsidies for lower-paid school staffers such as aides and a support system for homeless students.