Sanders rallies Chicago Teachers Union, demands change in national priotities


Ashlee Rezin / AP

Supporters cheer as presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019, in Chicago.

Autumn has arrived in Chicago. Michigan Avenue is patterned with fallen leaves. The temperature has begun to fall. And disputes over labor rights are in full swing.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced on Thursday that 94 percent of its 25,000 members voted in favor of authorizing a strike. The vote followed weeks of contract bargaining with the city.

Two days before, CTU hosted a rally at their headquarters, where Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders addressed teachers and staff of the third largest public school district in the country. The sea of union members in red shirts parted for Sanders to take his spot at the podium.

“I want you to know that you are doing some of the most important work that can possibly be done in our country,” Sanders said, addressing the crowd. “You are demanding and I am demanding a change in national priorities.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said that the contract the city offered at the end of August, which would include a 16 percent increase in teacher pay over the next five years, is “robust.”

But teachers at the rally made it clear that higher wages are just the tip of the pencil. The official demands of the Union include smaller classroom sizes, fully-staffed schools and justice for students and families.

“We all want our paychecks, but if certain things are not in place we have to fight for justice and what we need for our students to be successful,” said Mark Wiley, a civics teacher at Gage Park High School. “Every year, we’ve had no math teacher or no English teacher. How can students get a competitive education? It’s a travesty.”

In his speech, Sanders echoed the specific concerns of the union, as well as reiterating the tropes of his candidacy’s platform, like Medicare for all and wiping out student loan debt. He contrasted his distaste for tax cuts for the wealthy with a need to invest in kids and schools, “We’re going to put people to work rebuilding schools all over this country. That is what our children and our educators deserve.”

DePaul sophomore and Jefferson Park native, Lenin Plazas stood in line with the teachers for four hours to see his favorite candidate up close in his hometown.

“Bernie cares about equality and equity for all, and that’s what the Teachers’ Union has been fighting for,” he said.

Lenin also thinks more DePaul students should invest energy into helping with local issues like these.

“It’s important to be active in your communities, so if you’re a DePaul student, you should care about what happens in the city because it will affect you and you should be part of it,” he said.

35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa thinks that after Sanders’ show of support, the mayor has “got to listen now,” because the other candidates in the Democratic primary are now trying to stay in pace with Sanders.

“Elizabeth Warren plagiarized Bernie, we had Joe Biden plagiarize off of Bernie… so that means the entire Democratic field is calling on this Democratic mayor to do the right thing and support the teachers,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “She can’t ignore that.”

Even if the Mayor and CPS didn’t listen to Sanders’ calls for action, his message was certainly internalized by the protestors. Bilingual 7th grade math instructor, Norma Noriega was also a speaker at the rally. In an interview with the DePaulia, she said she felt emboldened by Sanders’ words, “He’s highlighted the true narrative, where we’re overworked we’re underpaid and taken advantage of. Insidious things are happening behind closed doors that the public doesn’t see and we’re just out here trying to fight for a better education. It felt so genuine.”