Teacher Strikes & The History of Black Teachers’ Protests

This week, charter school teachers in Chicago went on strike—again. This is only the third time everthat these teachers have gone on strike in the U.S. The first time was last fall—also in Chicago. By going on strike, these charter school teachers became part of a larger wave of protests by public school teachers in the last year—both in “Red States” like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, as well as Democratic Party strongholds like Los Angeles and Chicago. 

These protesting teachers have made traditional labor calls for improved pay, benefits, and working conditions, and other demands that directly benefit their students and the communities they serve (more support staff, smaller class sizes, increased classroom resources, and policies that address broader racial justice issues). As striking teacher Vaeshan Hudson-Pitts declared this week in Chicago: “I’m willing to do what it takes to provide for my family just like I provide for my students and their families every single day.” Linking workers’ concerns with the concerns of students and their communities, the striking teachers echo a much longer history of organizing by Black women educators within and outside of unions, particularly in Chicago.

Black educators’ organizing practices were forged in struggle. Until the 1940s, the teaching force in Chicago was overwhelmingly White. As Black teachers started making inroads into the profession, they were systematically excluded from certification by discriminatory oral examinations that relegated many Black teachers to full-time basis substitute status—with less pay and job security than certified teachers. School Board policies reinforced and exacerbated residential segregation patterns. Segregated Black schools were inequitably resourced, overcrowded, and often operated on double shifts (with Black students only attending school for half of the day).

During the 1960s, Black teachers increasingly fought back by advocating for themselves as public service workers and for improvements in the quality of education on behalf of the Black students who they served as fellow community members. These efforts included: attempts to desegregate the student body and staff, advocate for community control of schools, transform district policies and curriculum, and resolve Black teachers’ certification issues.

Their organizing also targeted the Chicago Teachers Union, which failed to take strong positions in support of Black teachers and Black students. In 1968, Lillie Peoples, a Black educator and leader in Operation Breadbasket’s Teachers Division in Chicago, helped to organize more than 500 teachers to support Black students’ demands for community control of schools. While Black children experienced the chaos of overcrowding and double shifts as students, Peoples navigated the chaos of operating on this multi-shift system as a teacher, struggling to develop meaningful relationships and deliver quality instruction to new groups of children shuffling in and out of the building several times during the day. 

As a result, Teachers’ Division identified the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Board of Education as two “heads of a single snake of institutional racism.” In the late 1960s, Black teachers even considered creating an alternative Black teachers’ union. In 1969 when the Chicago Teachers Union went on strike for the first time, Lillie Peoples organized Black teachers to defy the strike because she did not believe that additional resources won through the strike would be equitably allocated to Black schools and Black students. Nearly half of Black teachers crossed the picket lines. Black teachers’ strident organizing, along with state and federal mandates for faculty desegregation, significantly increased the number of Black educators and administrators in Chicago. 

Organizing by Black teachers transformed city politics and the Chicago Teachers Union. Black educators became a major political base of the movement to elect Harold Washington as the first Black mayor of Chicago. And, in 1984, Black teachers outnumbered White teachers in Chicago for the first time. Nearly 80% of these Black teachers were women. That same year, Jacqueline Vaughn was elected the as the first African American, first woman, and first elementary school teacher to serve as president of the Chicago Teachers Union. As union president in Chicago, and Vice President of the national American Federation of Teachers, Vaughn negotiated and used the power of the strike to solicit economic gains for city educators. She also used her position to lobby state and federal government for more resources for students in the city’s majority Black school district.  

In 2012, Chicago teachers once again went on strike to improve their working conditions and the conditions of the students in their classrooms. Led by Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, a veteran Black educator, teachers organized alongside parents and community organizations for better pay and against government austerity policies that threatened public institutions serving the city’s most vulnerable and marginalized residents. Teachers also organized for community-based programs in schools, air conditioning in all buildings, and more nurses, social workers, and support staff to serve the overwhelmingly Black and Latinx students in Chicago Public Schools. 

Given the city’s long legacy of teacher organizing, it is not surprising that charter schools in Chicago have emerged as a new terrain for teacher struggle nationally. In the twenty-first century, Chicago became an epicenter of national debates over government austerity policies and the corporate reorganization of public education, in which debates over charter school expansion have played a central role. Over that last twenty-five years, publicly funded, privately managed charter management companies have largely demonized teachers unions and prided themselves on maintaining a non-unionized workforce. Three of the four schools in Chicago where teachers went on strike this week have supermajority Black student populations and the fourth school has majority Latinx students.  

As teachers moved to the picket lines this week, Black educator, and current CTU Vice President, Stacy Davis Gates chastised Chicago International Charter Schools, the target of the current strike, for their treatment of teachers and the students and communities they serve: “They have contempt for the Black and Brown students they serve, and contempt for the educators who work long hours for low wages to educate those students. They have contempt for the Chicagoans who pay their taxes to educate our public schoolchildren – that’s why they are stealing funds from our students’ educational needs. They’ve forced us to be on the picket line, and we will shut these schools down.”

Increasingly, teachers in charter schools are demanding pay and workforce protections akin to their peers in traditional public schools. But, they are also demanding more resources for their students, smaller class sizes, more social workers and counselors in schools, and protections for undocumented students. In linking these demands, they owe a debt to the many Black women educators who laid the groundwork for current fights for equity.

Elizabeth Todd-Breland is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of A Political Education: Black Politics and Education Reform in Chicago Since the 1960(2018). Follow her on twitter: @etoddbreland.

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