Mainer Feels the Solidarity at the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

Rebecca Pelletier on strike with the Chicago teachers last month.

When second year teacher Rebecca Pelletier went out on strike with 25,000 of her colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU Local 1, AFT) last month, it was her first time taking collective action as a union member. After taking a year abroad following her graduation from St. Anselm College in 2017, the 25-year old Bangor native wanted to get out of New England for a while. So she decided to try Chicago where she landed a job teaching freshmen English on the South Side in 2018. She immediately fell in love with teaching and her students.

“It’s fantastic,” she said by phone on Wednesday. “We have the best students in the world. They just need more support and more resources and they can do just as well as everybody else.”

Unfortunately, Pelletier’s students faced stiffed challenges. Like in many parts of Maine, poverty and the drug epidemic have ravaged inner city communities. Chicago Public Schools are also woefully underfunded and have serious staffing recruitment and retention problems as well as a lack of social workers and nurses. Rebecca’s biggest complaint is that class sizes are just way too big.

“At the beginning of this year our freshman enrollment spiked unexpectedly and because we were already understaffed and the district wouldn’t give us adequate resources in the first place, we weren’t prepared for it,” she said. “I initially had four classes of 45 students or more. It was terrible. The kids were so uncomfortable. They kept asking, ‘when are we going to get our smaller classes?’”

Eventually, Pelletier’s classes were split up into smaller classes, but but other teachers weren’t so lucky. 

“Students are not learning in a classroom of 45 kids, especially if those students are already far behind and are already facing challenges outside of school,” she said. “A lot of people don’t understand just how exhausting it can be for a teacher, but also the implications on outcomes for our students.”

Pelletier said that being on strike was a very anxious time, but it was also very empowering. The best part was being also able to meet other teachers from across the city and discuss their workplace issues.

“It’s a double-edged sword because no union ever wants to have to go on strike, but it’s also an incredibly powerful weapon,” she said. “And feeling the sense of community and creating a real feeling of solidarity was amazing.”

While it certainly wasn’t easy for students and parents during the 14-day strike, the workers enjoyed massive community support because Chicagoans knew that the teachers and support staff were fighting for better schools. Many of the students joined the teachers on the picket lines and even organized a sit-in at City Hall.

“For high school students, it was a really amazing civics lesson,” said Pelletier. “For those students who were very engaged, and even those who were following along at home, this brought up a lot of crucial questions that they can now dissect in their classrooms about power, how the economic system and government function and how you can fight for effective change.”

When a tentative contract agreement was presented to the teachers, Pelletier said she and her colleagues actually voted against it because it didn’t commit to providing enough case managers for struggling students or adequate prep time for teachers. But after a few days she started thinking about the real concrete provisions the teachers won in the new contract, such as an additional $35 million in funding to shrink class sizes, substantial staff pay raises, enforceable caps on class sizes and a gradual commitment to putting a nurse and a social worker in every school.

“At first I felt pretty demoralized, but after a few days of processing, I think we had a lot of progress in this contract and language that puts into our contract some of the legal codes and our expectation for quality education like staffing, that seem relatively enforceable,” she said. “Another big one for us was creating equity within the schools.”

Pelletier says she also came to understand that the strike helped the teachers gain a foothold in the contract that they can build on in future negotiations. And she acknowledges that the collective action of the Chicago teachers has inspired workers all over the country.

“There’s a lot of power when teachers connect with each other, which is easy to forget because you’re in your classroom and isolated for the whole day,” said Pelletier. “There’s so much momentum that you can create together as a group and when you can convey to the public that this is not just about me and my salary, but this is what we need to do in order to improve the education system for our kids, people are more eager to show their support.”