Skip to main content

Climate Action Is a Labor Issue for This Teachers’ Union’s Leaders

The president of the Chicago Teachers Union explains how climate change became a pillar of the union’s contract demands

Stacy David Gates in red sweatshirt with CTU Logo speaking at a rally into microphone.

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates speaks at a labor rally on Oct. 7, 2023, in Chicago.

Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

CLIMATEWIRE | The Chicago Teachers Union started contract negotiations last week with two unprecedented moves: It opened bargaining to the public and began talks by focusing on climate action.

Stacy Davis Gates, president of the CTU since 2022, sees both of those strategies as pillars of winning a better contract for teachers. Climate impacts like extreme heat are becoming a classroom issue. And they’re an even bigger issue for the surrounding community — the same people whose support the CTU needs to win a better contract.

Davis Gates was vice president of the union when, in 2019, teachers went on a 15-day strike before winning pay and benefits increases. She highlighted the city's agreement in that negotiation to put a social worker in every school and sanctuary protections for immigrant students.

On supporting science journalism

If you're enjoying this article, consider supporting our award-winning journalism by subscribing. By purchasing a subscription you are helping to ensure the future of impactful stories about the discoveries and ideas shaping our world today.

Now, Davis Gates is expanding that idea — known as “bargaining for the common good” — to include climate policies, like installing solar panels and heat pumps in schools.

“What our union does, I think, better than most places is we connect the dots,” she said in a recent interview with POLITICO's E&E News. “Poverty doesn't just manifest in school policy; it manifests in environmental policy and manifests in housing policy. So the impacts that we are experiencing in our school communities are connected.”

The teachers union is one of the most powerful in Illinois, if not the country. Its contract negotiations already carry major implications for the city and state budget — especially as the district faces a nearly $400 million deficit. The union has already shored up its position by helping to elect Brandon Johnson, a former CTU organizer, as mayor of Chicago.

Some opponents of the union say its climate proposals are an example of overreach, citing Davis Gates’ recent comments that the teachers contract would cost the city “$50 billion and three cents.” On the social media site X, Davis Gates has nodded to the criticism by changing her display name to the “Muse of Chicago Trib Editorial Board,” in a reference to the right-leaning newspaper.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bargaining for a labor contract is hard enough when it’s limited to conventional things like salaries. Why add something like climate policy on top of that already challenging task?

Our union doubles down in a way that most unions don't. We changed our constitution to reflect social, racial and economic justice. And then we've also practiced, with fidelity, a type of unionism where our proposals reflect the needs of the larger community. Because what's important to know about my union is that our members live in every neighborhood in their city. We're required to live here.

So this idea that we would not fully maximize our influence is ridiculous. And I think that people are intimidated by that, because [our union is] 80 percent female. So you have all of these women basically in solidarity, unified, calling for all of these transformative initiatives and proposals and changes.

And so talk about flipping everything on its head at the same time. One, unionism is typically seen as a white male working-class path to power and leadership. Well, we're a whole bunch of girls. Two, we see our contract as an extension of community building, because we live and work in the same communities. We are through and through Chicagoans. And women always figure out how to maximize their influence and how to maneuver patriarchy and white supremacy.

I’ve not been this excited about work in a long time, and I’ll tell you why. All of what we're negotiating means nothing if the Earth is on fire. So our question to our larger membership is, what's our responsibility, not just the citizens of Chicago but citizens of the world?

Many of the proposals come from the experiences that our communities are having — specifically Altgeld Gardens and the southeast side of our city. Altgeld Gardens was used as a toxic dump. It's also where public housing exists. It's also where Black people live. On the southeast side of town, it is a Mexican-American community that has often been deprioritized for investment and expansion of public accommodations. And so when you look at these two places, you see a school, Washington High School, on the southeast side of town where the ceiling was collapsing on kids. And then you dig deeper into that situation, and you find that the school buildings were temporary structures that were never meant to be sustained in the way that they have been.

So one, they've been left behind. And two, that's no surprise, because of how industry has used that community as a dumping ground. So that makes sense for us to advocate. But it makes even more sense because the community groups in that space, they send their children to the schools there. And they see our union as a partner in their idea of justice.

This is our reciprocity to the communities that are already working on these issues, and this is our attempt to bring in a more layered approach.

More unions are beginning to look at this concept of “bargaining for the common good.” How do these larger issues fit into the job of teaching?

What our union does, I think, better than most places is we connect the dots. Poverty doesn't just manifest in school policy; it manifests in environmental policy and manifests in housing policy. So the impacts that we are experiencing in our school communities are connected. And so again, what is the union's responsibility to the broader community in which we serve?

Common-good bargaining makes sense for common-good practitioners. We provide a common good: We provide a public education, we provide support and safety for young people.

How different is it to expand that idea of common-good bargaining to include climate?

This is, I think, a remarkable expansion of even our imagination on how the common good manifests in bargaining. But it makes sense, right?

We have career technical education tracks in the Chicago Public Schools. There is a green economy that is not just emerging but putting in roots. And we have to present opportunities for our young people to be literate in that economy and to be competitive.

I think another bucket is, how do our practices with respect to the facilities that we maintain, the facilities that we build, how do we make a demand on the boss to create green spaces?

Here's the thing: Institutions have to have checks and balances. Our collective bargaining agreement is a check and a balance. So how does that reflect what's beneficial for our overall sustainability?

A collective bargaining agreement has to extend beyond wages and benefits. We're a union of women that live in Chicago. This is their tool, this is their vehicle to have agency in this city and to help do their part in investing in the type of justice in this city that's necessary.

If we're not compelling people [in charge of the district] and requiring them to think differently about the world that we're living in today — versus the world that we were living in five years ago — they're not going to just figure it out by themselves.

Does bargaining for climate policy create tension with other things you want from a contract? If these things cost money, doesn’t that mean choosing between, say, more solar panels or higher salaries?

Well, the boss is always going to tell us that they don't have it. I mean, I don't get anxious or angry at the boss telling me that they don't have money. That's literally the first rule of being a boss in contract negotiations, is to tell the worker that they don't have any resources for anything that they're asking for.

So they're supposed to say that, and our job is to help connect the dots. There are financial savings, actually, in transitioning our district into a more sustainable, green space. There are discernible financial impacts that help their bottom line.

And here's another argument to be made: You can make a whole bunch of money, you can have the best benefits in the world — but if your actual community is on fire, how do you enjoy that? So I don't understand counterposing those two things. All of those things, to me and our union, it's connected.

When you see the worker as a whole person connected to a family that's connected to other families that form a community — it’s very difficult to counterpose common-good [issues] and bread-and-butter issues. Both of those things are necessary for a whole person. And the worker is a whole person.

Is this a model that other unions can draw from? How does this fit into the landscape of organized labor?

I think that this is an emerging set of proposals that will continue to build out the common-good bargaining repertoire. I think too there is a recognition — [United Auto Workers] made it this past cycle with their Stand Up Strike — that the green economy is not just emerging; it’s a very real part of the way in which decisions are being evaluated.

How are we — labor, the workers — defining it for ourselves? Not the way the boss defines it, but how are workers defining it? So it’s incumbent upon us to be a part of the innovation too. And so this is why it’s at our table.

Of course, you could put solar panels on the roofs of schools. Why aren't we doing that? Is this a priority? At which point do all of our schools have it? If we're building new schools, what are the benchmarks for that? How many of those benchmarks include sustainable materials, or how many of those benchmarks include a percentage of CPS graduates who have to be a part of the project?

Our collective bargaining agreement is a tool to transform. It is a tool to create what's necessary for our sustainability. Sure, it's a different perspective. And quite frankly, I think it's the most powerful perspective in American society right now.

Everyone is responsible for the sustainability of our community. This is Chicago Teachers Union’s demonstration of our accountability to our larger community, to our larger society, and saying we have to be more responsible and thoughtful in the ways in which our school district engages in the environment.

We believe our students have a great deal of skin in the game. It is up to us to platform both their literacy in this space and the opportunities for them to participate in this space. It is also incumbent upon us to name that we have a lot of aging structures in this city. We have practices that are antiquated and that hurt our environment. Our collective bargaining agreement and our coalition work, especially in communities of color, will be a net benefit to everyone. And that's what unionism is about. It's about the many. And it just makes sense to us.

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2024. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.