Chicago Teachers Union Strikes on April 1st, Drums up Nostalgia for Democratic Participation in Schools

Written by: Kacy Martin

Primary Source: Green & Write, April 7, 2016

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has, in recent years, been a formidable political presence in the conversation around urban education. The 2012 strike brought with it nostalgia for the widespread support of its organizing efforts in the 1970s, as well as a newfound adherence to its message among its members. The first walkout in 25 years, the 2012 strike sought to bring awareness to issues stipulated as in-bounds for contract negotiations, as well as to those outside the scope of the union versus the school district.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Contract agreements stipulated that negotiations between the CTU and the city of Chicago were limited to issues of salary and benefits. However, the union used the platform created by the strike to bring to light issues that, while not up for negotiation under contract, could derive some political support when presented to the public. Namely, the CTU wanted to discuss basic workplace quality issues like the expectation of vermin-free classrooms, sufficient heat in the winter, and access to air conditioners during the late spring and early fall months. Despite its national audience, however, the CTU kept its political message honed to Chicago’s schools in 2012. This week, their tactics changed quite dramatically.

The CTU staged a one-day walkout this week, keeping students home for a day on April first. Unlike the multi-day strike in 2012, however, the strategy behind this protest was broader in scope. Like their counterparts in Detroit earlier this year, Chicago educators want to raise awareness of political issues that are outside of the traditional parameters of teacher strikes. Teachers participated, but were joined by parents and university faculty, low-wage workers, and Black Lives Matter activists. Rather than protest working conditions and pay specifically, the CTU is using its political heft to bring attention to the central issue in Chicago, and many other cities at the moment: An imbalance of power between the people and the government elite.

Activists this week sought to associate the fiscal challenges in Chicago Public Schools with the wider impacts of the state-wide budget standoff on low-income families. Beyond these particular issues, however was the sentiment that the public has little voice in many issues that concern it. The CTU walkout was about much more than schools. It was about asserting the identity of a populace that feels disenfranchised.

There is little democratic accountability in education today. In particular, large cities like Detroit and Chicago, have transitioned to some form of mayoral or state control. This means that a parent can no longer go to his or her local school board member with concerns, let alone attempt to get elected as a board member. Rather, constituents can try to make their concerns known to the mayor, or even governor in the case of Michigan. What the CTU and the teachers in Detroit seek to do with their organizing efforts is not to simply achieve better working conditions and fair pay. Rather, they aim to reestablish themselves as the voice of democracy that holds an ever-distant government accountable for its decisions.

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Kacy Martin
Kacy Martin entered the Educational Policy program in the fall of 2013. After completing a Bachelor and Master's degrees at the University of Michigan, she taught in the Chicago Public Schools, serving on the Instructional Leadership Team and creating professional learning cycles to improve teacher practices in reading instruction. Her research focuses on the impact of parent social networks on school choice in urban districts, the relationship between urban planning and school enrollment, and the politics of education finance at the local and state levels.