Chicago teachers demand climate action in union contract

By Adam Aton | 06/14/2024 06:38 AM EDT

Labor leaders see both practical and strategic benefits to bargaining over climate policy.

Craig Cleve marches with members of the Chicago Teachers Union as they picket outside City Hall on July 2, 2015.

Craig Cleve marches with members of the Chicago Teachers Union as they picket outside City Hall on July 2, 2015. Christian K. Lee/AP

One of the country’s most powerful unions is bargaining for climate policy in its next contract.

The Chicago Teachers Union on Friday will open public contract negotiations with the city — and among its demands will be the union’s “green schools” initiative.

The teachers union is pushing to electrify the school bus fleet, cut building emissions via energy-saving retrofits and solar panels and create new technical education programs to train students for renewable energy jobs.


The negotiations illustrate the growing alignment between the climate and labor movements, which historically have clashed over the energy transition. Worsening climate impacts, such as the wildfire smoke that blanketed Chicago last year, have helped push some unions to embrace climate action as a workplace issue.

Union leaders also see strategic reasons for broadening the scope of their demands. Chicago teachers are required to live in the city, so shaping local climate policy has a direct impact on CTU members. They also hope it builds public support for the union, whose contract negotiations sometimes have involved strikes that shut down schools.

That’s one reason union leaders see a synergy between their climate proposals — which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars — and their wage and benefits demands: The more buy-in they get from the public, the harder they can negotiate.

“This is Chicago Teachers Union’s demonstration of our accountability to our larger community,” Stacy Davis Gates, president of the CTU, said in an interview with POLITICO’s E&E News. “Our collective bargaining agreement and our coalition work, especially in communities of color, will be a net benefit to everyone.”

To maximize that effect, CTU is opening their bargaining to the public for the first time, both online and in person. Union leaders are using the occasion to highlight the issues they think resonate most with the public — using the first session to bargain over “healthy, safe, green schools.” It will include testimony from parents and community groups about environmental justice.

Climate demands have surfaced from some other unions recently. In 2020, Minneapolis janitors with the Service Employees International Union led a one-day strike, with support from climate advocates, to win a new contract that committed to lower their companies’ energy and water consumption. And in 2023, Los Angeles teachers went on strike for three days before winning a a contract that incorporated climate into more curriculum and administrative decisions.

Now, the CTU is fighting for a more ambitious suite of climate actions, including a 2035 goal of net-zero emissions district-wide.

It proposes installing solar panels, heat pumps and composting programs at 50 schools, as well as a fully electrified school bus fleet and a moratorium on new gas heaters. It asks for a “carbon neutral schools” pilot program at five schools — with a goal of cutting energy costs 30 percent by the end of the next school year.

The union’s proposed contract wants windows that can open in every school and the removal of lead pipes from all buildings. It proposes a “climate champion” for each school to coordinate climate initiatives, as well the establishment of heating and cooling centers that would be available to the community during extreme weather.

The union also is seeking new clean energy education programs at every neighborhood high school, starting with those in environmental justice communities.

The 20,000-member CTU is well positioned to advance its demands after helping elect Mayor Brandon Johnson, a former teacher and union organizer.

That’s led some conservatives to say the teachers union is overreaching.

“With a beholden former employee sitting across the bargaining table, CTU appears to be going for broke. That is, Chicagoans will be broke if the mayor hands CTU everything it wants,” the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute said of the union’s climate and other demands.

Across the country, unions have begun to embrace a type of activism known as “bargaining for the common good.” Chicago teachers are far from alone in making additional political demands, but their long history and their favorable circumstances means they stand a better chance than most at achieving them, said Erik Loomis, a historian of organized labor and the environment.

“They’ve been taking collective bargaining out of just your standard wage, hours and working conditions [framework], and really working toward broader political aims that have the benefit of getting a significant amount of public support,” said Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island.

“And teachers — and that very much includes the CTU — have been at the forefront of that fight,” he said. It’s especially effective, he added, when teachers unions can draw connections between larger political issues and their local conditions.

“The ability to teach when it’s so hot in the classroom — something that just gets worse and worse every year — that’s a very real, working-condition kind of issue.”

The CTU’s proposal includes a demand that the district replace heating and cooling systems at the 50 schools that most often experience extreme temperature problems. It also wants the district to build at least three new carbon-free schools to replace the most outdated ones.

The Chicago School District has its own climate goals, including cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030 and becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.

But the CTU says its contract demands can pressure the district to do more. Union leaders point to Chicago’s recent grant from the EPA to purchase 50 new electric school buses. It took union pressure for the district to apply for that $20 million grant, the CTU says. (The district did not respond to a request for comment.)

“If we’re not compelling people [who run 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,” Davis Gates said.

The union’s demands will hold the district accountable to its goals, she said, while using its power to compel more action. That’s especially important, she added, to a union that’s mostly female and facing a power structure that’s dominated by white men.

“We’re a union of women who live in Chicago. This [contract] 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,” she said.

“We see our contract as an extension of community building. Because we are through and through Chicagoans.”