Chicago mayor: Teachers' union made us 'a laughing stock'

Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot

Chicago mayor: Teachers' union made us 'a laughing stock.'

This week, understanding the crisis that closed Chicago public schools helps to know the key ingredient.

The increasingly toxic relationship between the Chicago Teachers' Union and Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been waiting to erupt for months — if not years. The Omicron variable turned out to be the spark.

"There are a lot of things we can engage in," Lightfoot said in an interview Wednesday about her recent struggle with the union, whose members voted overwhelmingly late Tuesday not to return to in-person teaching. "Instead, they have chosen an illegal, unilateral measure that throws the entire system into disarray and makes us a laughing stock across the country."

Chicago is the largest county to shut down and the only central county due to a labor dispute.

It's unknown if the union's move will inspire teachers elsewhere to follow suit as they see their members contracting the virus, which has already led to smaller lockdowns. But several elected Democrats across the country who supported shutdowns early in the pandemic insist that public schools must remain open during the Omicron surge -- a repositioning that has led to friction with teacher unions, a key constituency.

For now, hard-line teacher unions in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, and Sacramento are not calling for schools to close the way Chicago teachers are. The California Powerful Teachers Association issued a statement with Governor Newsom last month pledging to "keep our classrooms open" in a state where universities have closed due to the pandemic for longer than almost anywhere in the country. Also, New York City Mayor Eric Adams gives more voice to the social and academic problems plaguing home-schooled students and recognizes parents' patience to return to online classes.

Tensions in Chicago are particularly harsh for Lightfoot, a sharp-tongued reformist. She also does not suffer from compliments and appreciates the frankness of her allies and critics.

Last month, a public records request revealed how she regularly emailed her employees and critics, the city's voters and political class barely blinked. Even allies are familiar with the mayor's tone. "The mayor has always had a starkly honest working relationship," Alderman Brendan Riley said in an interview at the time.

But for some of those working or negotiating with her, Lightfoot's frankness made her dealings with CTU—a group that also upset her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, at times—uncontrollable.

And during a press conference on Wednesday evening, former Attorney General Lightfoot did what Chicagoans expected: She went deep.

Union officials blamed the mayor for the stalemate that has driven nearly 330,000 public school students in the city from their classrooms.

In an interview, Chicago Alderman Raymond Lopez, who has criticized the mayor on everything from public safety to emergency powers, said. They are on a mission to disrupt this administration in a way that puts me to shame. I can tell when you're doing something right, and they refuse even to do it."

During her press conference on Wednesday night, the mayor said teachers who did not return to classes on Friday would not be paid. 

The government spent millions of dollars to make Chicago schools safe for students and school staff during the pandemic. She added that ventilation systems had been improved, and schools have HEPA filters and masks and social distancing measures in place.

The teachers' union insists that the improvements are not enough. Gates said the city is withholding many federal dollars — Chicago public schools have received $2 billion in federal Covid relief funding, which should be spent on schools.

"I can't stress this enough: We have billions of dollars to help us get past the Covid that we don't see in our school communities," Gates said. "We don't see large-scale testing. We don't see vaccination clinics, especially in zip codes in this struggling city."

CPS CEO Pedro Martinez acknowledged that the city "agrees" that more needs to boost Covid testing. District officials said Wednesday night that they should prioritize testing on asymptomatic and unvaccinated students due to limited supplies.

However, Lightfoot disagrees that the dispute between her office and the teachers' union has anything to do with politics or leadership. After all, to engage with teachers. There was a teachers' strike during Emmanuel's tenure as well.

"Anyone sitting in that seat, given who the counter-terror unit is, would be in the same place I am. It's not about personality. It's about self," Lightfoot said.

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