Over 25,000 teachers in Chicago went on strike on October 17, forcing the cancellation of classes for over 361,000 students in the country's third-largest school district. The strikes came after the Chicago Teachers Union failed to negotiate an agreement with the district over pay and working conditions.
The teachers are prepared to go on strike until their demands are met, bringing the public school system to a grinding halt. As the strike continues into a new week, the union's demands highlight the financial challenges teachers across the United States face.
The union demands that the school district "stop short-changing the people who make our schools work" and raise salaries across the board.
The teachers also want the school district to hire more staff "in all the areas that impact children's learning" such as social workers, counselors and nurses.
Overcrowded classrooms are another major concern for the union, which supports hard caps on class sizes. The union says that schools currently have as many as 40 students in a single class.
The school system has pushed back against these demands. Chicago Public Schools says that its initial compensation agreement, which was rejected by the union, included "the most generous offers in the district's history."
The complaints of low pay by Chicago's striking teachers are rooted in evidence. The United States lags behind its peers, including Canada and Australia, in terms of teacher salaries, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The median annual salary for primary school teachers in the United States is $56,790, while the salary increases to $60,320 for high school teachers, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the median figure is not completely representative of the whole story: The bottom 10% of teachers earn less than $40,000 annually.
While wages across different occupations have seen steady growth since the recession, the average teacher salary has actually decreased by 3% over the past decade when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Education Association.
Chicago Public School teachers earn a starting salary of just under $53,000 annually, the Chicago Tribune reports. In a rule unique to Chicago, public school teachers are required to live in the city proper, where the cost of living is greater than the surrounding suburbs. In fact, Chicago's cost of living is 23% higher than the national average, according to data from salary site PayScale.
Outside of salary concerns alone, teachers often confront additional financial strains due to the nature of the job.
Many teachers have reported spending their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement, adding further financial strain.
Since teachers generally only work for 10 months out of the year, they must find ways to stretch their salary or other means of making ends meet during summer breaks. An analysis by the Pew Research Center found that one in six public school teachers work a second job during the summer to supplement their income.
As classes were cancelled for the fourth day, the union and the school system are still negotiating a deal. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said on Twitter Monday that the government would "continue to work hard at the bargaining table."
However, after Lightfoot suggested that teachers end the strike without a reaching a settlement and continue negotiations while working without a contract, union president Jesse Sharkey told the Chicago Tribune that "progress has stopped dead."
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