For two decades, the Chicago Teachers Union flew under the radar, generally avoiding contentious negotiations and strikes, and maintaining a working relationship with City Hall.
Then a wave of teacher activism starting in 2010 turned the union into perhaps the city’s most prominent labor organization and a national labor leader — deepening its political influence and creating a constant power struggle against the mayor’s office and Chicago Public Schools leadership.
Chicago educators will vote next week on who should lead the city’s teachers union for the next three years — a decision that will decide which direction the CTU will take in the years to come and marks the culmination of a campaign fraught with tension, accusations of outside tampering and even lawsuits.
The CTU election comes at a pivotal moment for education in Chicago, with schools still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, a mayoral election looming and the city’s first school board elections nearing. And it leaves teachers and support staff asking themselves a vital question: Should the union continue its role as a progressive force fighting for wider social justice issues inside and outside the classroom, or should it instead solely focus on classic teacher concerns such as pay, preparation time and pensions?
For some parents and the public, a less antagonistic relationship between CTU, CPS and City Hall — which has been promised by one of the three caucuses running to lead the union — would be a welcome change. The current leadership has been in power for 12 years and led the union on two strikes, plus standoffs during the pandemic in which staff refused to report in person over safety concerns — all of which have led to weeks of missed classes.
For others, like parents and advocates who have appreciated the CTU’s voice, a new direction might feel like a sudden void in progressive politics and advocacy in the city. It also would reverberate nationally with other teachers unions which have looked to the CTU as a leader.
Stacy Davis Gates, the CTU vice president and the presidential candidate for the incumbent CORE caucus, said a loss would take away a strong force that has looked out for the interests of Chicago families since Karen Lewis co-founded the group over a decade ago. And it would clear the way for the mayor to close schools and starve public education in the name of austerity, she said.
“What we have is a very powerful, influential union because our members are residents of this city, because our members connect their profession to all of the macro challenges in the city, from the legalized segregation to the lack of affordability to the violence and the trauma that we absorb and encounter as residents of the city,” Davis Gates said.
While it’s hard to handicap a frontrunner with no polling available publicly, it would be a stunning fall if Davis Gates and CORE are knocked out of power. This represents the first seriously contested election in over a decade — the Members First caucus challenged the current leadership in 2019 but only won about a third of the vote. Members are set to vote May 20, and a slate would need a simple majority to avoid a runoff.
This time around, Members First has organized a more cohesive and better-financed campaign — though some in the union say the caucus has been boosted by outsiders, like a former mayoral aide who ran social media ads supporting the group. The CTU sued that Lightfoot ally, but Members First has denied seeking or accepting outside help.
If elected, Members First promises collaboration with “all stakeholders,” including the mayor, to create a “new day between the union and the city,” said Mary Esposito-Usterbowski, the Members First presidential candidate. But the group isn’t exactly pledging labor peace and intends to create a strike fund.
Members First accuses the current CTU leadership of donating too much to political candidates without the approval or input of members. The main focus for Members First is to “make sure members get what they need,” Esposito-Usterbowski said. Among the top agenda items: increasing the amount teachers get for supplies from $250 to $750, smaller class sizes, school cleanliness and expanding vocational education.
“If members have what they need, it will directly impact the educational outcomes of children,” she said.
The other challenger slate is newly formed and mostly made up of former CORE members who have grown disillusioned with the current leadership. The candidates with that group, called REAL, also believe the union should stand for member needs and social justice, but they think Davis Gates and outgoing President Jesse Sharkey have become too interested in holding power and disconnected with educators’ day-to-day struggles.
That group is in some ways more idealistic than the current battle-worn leaders and could be less willing to compromise. “We will hold strong and be ready to act and mobilize if needed,” said Darnell Dowd, REAL’s presidential candidate.
Both challenger groups have focused on the issue of teacher preparation time, for example, as a vital working condition for educators that they feel Sharkey and Davis Gates have failed to prioritize while pursuing overarching policy fights.
When a reform caucus takes over a union and goes after meaningful change, there often comes a point where some members feel leadership has lost touch with the union’s core function and identity, said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike.
The key issue at stake in this election, from Bruno’s perspective, is how each caucus wants to balance basic issues like grievances, pay and benefits with the city’s structural injustices and community disinvestment that affect students and educators.
“This labor organization has to do both,” he said. “It cannot walk away from one or the other.
“The story is about what’s happening here, but it’s also about a model of unionism in the education sector. And a lot is riding on it.”
Perhaps the best way to understand how the CTU came to this point is to look at how members reacted to the union’s January five-day standoff with Lightfoot.
With cases of the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 skyrocketing, members voted to refuse to work in person for the second consecutive winter because of disagreements with CPS over safety precautions. But the mayor wouldn’t let schools operate remotely. She canceled school and refused to pay staff who didn’t go in.
After a week of missed classes, the union voted to end its labor action with little in return — a move some saw as a major defeat while others thought CTU should never have walked out. Those split views were reflected by only 55.5% of members approving the safety agreement, an unusually close margin for the CTU.
Davis Gates said navigating the pandemic as a leader of the union has been one of the most difficult tasks she’s undertaken, made harder by the mayor’s insistence on in-person learning since the start of the pandemic. That meant the union had to stand up for the health and safety of staff and students, she said.
“Our members did the right thing because they always do the right thing,” Davis Gates said. “They anchor the common good of Chicago and they were punished for it.”
Dowd, of the REAL caucus, said it was fine to take the January action, but he believed union officials should have been preparing members and parents about a potential confrontation all fall. Instead, the fight unfolded in a matter of days after winter break, surprising many. “We upset a lot of parents, we upset a lot of our community partners,” he said.
Esposito-Usterbowski, presidential candidate for Members First, said she thought the January walkout was a political stunt.
“I think that the current leadership of our union has been more focused on advancing their own political careers than delivering for all of us members,” she said. “In January, CTU members lost [millions] for a couple of KN95 masks so our leaders could publicly weaken the mayor,” she said, referring to wages lost during the five-day standoff.
No matter who wins, Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), chairman of the City Council Education and Child Development Committee and father of three CPS students, said he’d like the election to reset CTU’s relationship with CPS and the mayor’s office, with all sides “toning down the rhetoric.” He acknowledged Sharkey and Davis Gates won the “best contract that their members have ever seen” in 2019 — but questioned the toll of instability on children.
Scott Jr. said the election will be a “referendum on the direction” members want the CTU to take.
“There is always a place for advocacy for our children, there is always a place for advocacy especially in communities that are underserved,” he said. “And what that measure of advocacy is depends on that certain union. I don’t know what the right measure is, that is determined by their union and what members want to do.”
Bruno, the labor professor, said workers benefit from an engaged democracy in their union. And robust conversation about policies that affect the rank-and-file help keep leadership in tune with its members.
“Unions aren’t well-served by one slate, one caucus, one party that just dominates across time,” Bruno said. “You really want the members selecting leaders that have won their endorsement and have done so on the basis of their perspectives, of their policies.”
Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Sun-Times. Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ.