Collective Action Beyond a Singular Issue Focus: Why Chicago’s Teacher Strike is a Starting Guide for Challenging Systemic Racism

Education has been a site of limitation and mobility for Black students. While states rolled out anti-literacy laws during slavery, enslaved and free Black people formed clandestine schools (1). Brown  v. Board of Education of Topeka successfully argued against the doctrine of separate but equal, yet schools are more segregated now than they were almost 50 years ago. Now, the Chicago Teachers’ Strike is actively pursuing comprehensive structural changes to improve the possibilities of Black students. Chicago educators are responding to a lack of State aid, support, and effort to rectify federally institutionalized discrimination. Politicians across the nation should look to Chicago as a guide on how to revolutionize the public school system and address systemic discrimination or prepare for more strikes.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) took to the streets on October 17th and the strike recently came to an end on October 31. The 15-day strike was in response to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s inability to codify her campaign promises into a contract. The CTU crafted demands that took a multifaceted approach to combat educational inequity. A deeper analysis of the CTU’s demands is vital for understanding the importance and revolutionary potential of challenging multiple discrimination systems at once. One of the CTU demands that best exemplifies this was the call to have affordable housing in the city.

Some critics of the Union’s demand claimed that affordable housing had no place within a teachers’ union bargaining contract. It is evident that they either fail to recognize or choose to willfully ignore the need for a multifaceted approach against institutionalized racism. Tricia Rose’s current project is making a manual that explains how systemic racism works (2). Rose described a discrimination system to be a set of dynamically related areas in which 1) disparities favor certain groups over others, 2) disparities are mutually reinforcing, and 3) only one source of disparities is needed for it to be discrimination; meaning that colorblind laws can still reproduce racialized outcomes because they are predicated on older, biased laws. For her project, the related areas of focus are wealth, housing, education, and criminal justice. In terms of the Chicago Teachers’ Strike and their demand for affordable housing, it is valuable to hone focus on housing, education, and wealth.   

Furthermore, it is invaluable to cite the problem to the status quo a more comprehensive, multifaceted reform plan can pose to those who the current system benefits most or impacts to a lesser extent. As Rose notes in her 2013 work, “Public Tales Wag the Dog: Telling Stories about Structural Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era,” narratives can be used to normalize and legitimize discrimination systems. Thus, the public claim of affordable housing as a necessity for educational success presents a radical call for an end to systemic racism.

A previously never-articulated demand for teachers’ unions is the CTU’s call for an expansion of affordable housing in Chicago. This demand for a teachers’ union strike is unprecedented; however, it shouldn’t be. As Rose has articulated, it is utilizing an intersectional view of discrimination is necessary to dismantle structural racism. Housing is a major cog in the machine of America’s racial discrimination system. Affordable housing can help combat rates of homelessness amongst Chicago public school students and their families. Homelessness puts students at a higher risk for dropping out of school, so affordable housing can have a direct impact on graduation outcomes. It also will make it easier to recruit teachers and utilize educators from Chicago neighborhoods as opposed to opening up teaching positions to suburban educators who may lack an understanding of the communities Chicago public school students live in.  

  Affordable housing also provides similarly promising prospects for Black communities who housing laws have negatively targeted. Most people garner their wealth through homeownership (3). Racialized housing laws have targeted and negatively impacted Black communities. Black homeownership lags behind white homeownership and perpetuates economic disparities between the two groups. Optimistically, affordable housing can mean an opportunity for historically disadvantaged Black families to move away from renting and towards homeownership and accruing generational wealth.

The CTU recognizes the interconnectedness of education, housing, and wealth and what that can mean for dismantling a racial discrimination system. Political leaders have proven this to be a problem. Since the initial proposal of the idea of affordable housing, Mayor Lightfoot had opposed considering it for the union contract because, as she claimed, housing was an issue that affected the entire city, thus discussing it for the CTU collective bargaining agreement was not appropriate. Disappointingly, the Mayor maintained her stance on the CTU’s demand for affordable housing. This moment was an amazing opportunity for Mayor Lightfoot to substantiate her claims as a progressive reformer. However, the problem to the status quo the CTU has posed and their articulation of the linkage between housing and educational attainment proved too great a problem for the city government. The potential for radical, multi-axis reform has hit an impasse in Chicago.

The CTU has shown through its demands that it is dedicated to the larger cause of uprooting structural racism. While not being a total success in terms of the fulfillment of every demand, the CTU Teachers’ Strike has accomplished significant feats and has galvanized teachers’ unions strikes across the nation. Local and state level political leaders should embrace the insights of these educators who have committed themselves to supporting and developing the future leaders of our communities. CTU’s multifaceted demands should set an example for all those who plan on utilizing collective action. Collective effort to address systemic discrimination is ineffective if it only targets a single issue.

(1)Heather Andrea Williams, Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 184.

(2) Tricia Rose, “How Systemic Racism Works in an Era of ‘Racial Equality’.” AFRI 0090:Introduction to Africana. October 1, 2019.

(3) Ibid.

2 thoughts on “Collective Action Beyond a Singular Issue Focus: Why Chicago’s Teacher Strike is a Starting Guide for Challenging Systemic Racism”

  1. Akire, I enjoy your succinct, but well-thought out introduction, and believe it provides a good framing for the rest of your blog. I also enjoy your specific highlighting of the importance of using an intersectional framework to mitigate the many factors that contribute to education inequity. Going forward, you may want to consider the benefits of collective action in other settings such as college and university campuses, and potentially link the strikes in Chicago to those happening in New York City regarding access to public transportation and the affordability of the city. Great work; I look forward to reading your final blog!

  2. Akire, your blog post takes an extremely important and often complicated issue and presents it in a very streamlined way. Your point about the importance of educators in Chicago living in the city so they have a greater understanding their students’ lives and the issues that are important to them is not something that I had considered and likely applies to other cities throughout the United States. It’s unfortunate that the mayor was able to avoid tackling these issues in an effective manner, but I’m glad to see other protests taking form across the country with similar approaches.

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