On Aug. 4, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) planned to call a strike authorization vote to keep students from returning to schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few hours later, the city government canceled a plan to bring students back to schools two days a week and announced that fall classes would instead be held entirely online.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, of course, doesn’t credit the potential strike for the abrupt change in city policy, claiming the decision was about science rather than teachers threatening militant workplace action. But she previously supported a plan that claimed it was safe to bring students back to school buildings two days a week.
CTU has repeatedly shown it can pull off popular and successful strikes like the one it carried out last fall.
Demands for remote learning have grown more intense over the summer, as teachers warn that school districts are woefully unprepared to prevent the rapid spread of COVID-19 to students and school staff.
On July 28, the School District of Philadelphia announced it would conduct fall classes remotely, after months of worker and parent pressure organized in large part by the Caucus of Working Educators, a rank-and-file caucus of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
And Aug. 3, teachers across the country rallied to demand safe schools in a coordinated day of action organized by a coalition of teachers unions. Teachers tied the demand for remote learning during the pandemic to demands to better fund schools and to remove police officers from school buildings.
That same day, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) reached a remote teaching deal with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). LAUSD had already agreed in principle to keep school buildings closed in mid-July, following union demands. Like CTU, UTLA conducted a massive, successful strike in 2019.
The wins in Philadelphia and Los Angeles and the dramatic shift in Chicago illustrate an important point: when workers can credibly threaten to shut down their workplaces, they have the power to win big. And they can win not just for themselves, but for everyone.
Thanks to organized teachers, hundreds of thousands of children will no longer face the threat of going to crowded, unsafe schools in the middle of a deadly pandemic. As teachers in other parts of the country turn up the pressure, that number will probably reach into the millions.
(Edited and reprinted from Jacobin.)