CHICAGO -- Striking teachers marched in picket lines outside hundreds of Chicago schools on Thursday after their union and city officials failed to reach a contract deal in the nation's third-largest school district, canceling classes for more than 300,000 students for the duration of a walkout that seemed likely to head into a second day.
The strike in the nation's third-largest school district came after the Chicago Teachers Union confirmed Wednesday night that its 25,000 members would not return to their classrooms. It follows months of negotiations between the union and Chicago Public Schools that failed to resolve disputes over pay and benefits, class size and teacher preparation time.
Union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said the strike will continue into Friday as a result of the impasse, and the school district cancelled a second day of classes.
Picketing teachers said Thursday the walkout was about getting more resources and smaller class sizes for students in the cash-strapped district, not about putting more money in their pockets.
Outside Smyth Elementary, a predominantly black and low-income school on the city's near South Side, art teacher John Houlihan said "we're not fighting for paychecks and health care. It's the kids."
"It's ridiculous to say that you can put these kids who are dealing with profound poverty and profound homelessness in classes of 30-40 kids," said Houlihan, who picketed with about 20 other teachers and staff as drivers passed by, honking their horns. "That's not manageable and it is not an environment for learning."
The strike is Chicago's first major walkout by teachers since 2012. And just as that strike inspired unions in Los Angeles and other politically left-leaning cities to walk off the job and protest over issues such as class size and student services, unions nationwide are today watching closely to see how parents respond to a walkout based on a "social justice" agenda.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey joined teachers picketing outside Helen Peirce International Studies school, where he said every kindergarten class has at least 30 students. He said there's "pent-up frustration" among union members about conditions in the schools, and the union wants some of those longstanding issues addressed in their next contract.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she was disappointed by the union's decision to strike.
"We are offering a historic package on the core issues -- salary, staffing and class size," she said.
Lightfoot voiced frustration about what she sees as the union's lack of urgency to make a deal. "So, what we need is for the union to come back to the table to bargain in good faith, spend the time actually getting a deal done, face to face with us, and not off to the side in a caucus," she said. "If there is a seriousness of purpose and a willingness on the other side we could get a deal done today."
Sharkey spoke briefly after early talks wrapped up and said it's "highly unlikely" a deal on all outstanding issues would be struck Thursday. Sharkey said the district did provide some written language on class sizes that the union was still reviewing.
"We don't just want a fast deal," Sharkey said before leading teachers on a march through the city's downtown streets. "We are going to hold fast to a just deal."
Bargainers were expected to return Thursday afternoon.
Also striking are 7,000 support staffers, whose union also failed to reach a contract agreement.
But from the picket lines in front of schools citywide to Washington, D.C., home of the American Federation of Teachers, the message was the same: The school district and the mayor are not doing nearly enough to improve the lives of students.
"Educators in Chicago want the same thing educators who have walked off the job all across this country want," said AFT President Randi Weingarten in a statement. "The resources to give their students what they need."