For the past decade, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been one of the few bright spots for the U.S. labor movement, not only in Chicago but across the country. It’s hard to imagine the pre-pandemic red state revolts, or the Los Angeles’ teachers strike happening without the success of the CTU strike in 2012, and the model provided by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) to build a successful reform movement in local education unions.
The recent lockout of Chicago teachers by the Lightfoot administration—and the stingy settlement wrenched from her hands to deal with the Omicron surge—has demonstrated once again the resilience of the CTU. It’s this resilience that has brought to the surface the fury and frustration of Chicago’s ruling class for whom CTU has been a thorn in the side for the past decade.
Not surprisingly leading the charge is the Chicago Tribune, the longstanding mouthpiece of anti-union politics, which intervened in the current CTU leadership election. Barking for a change in the union’s leadership, it declared: “In democracies, voters fix what’s wrong by kicking out of office the people who made everything a mess. It applies to government, and it should also apply to the Chicago Teachers Union.”
Virtually frothing at the mouth, the Tribune editorial writers ranted on:
Up for reelection is the slate led by CTU President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. Their playbook has been built on three pillars: grandstanding, brinkmanship and political gain. Teachers have had no choice but to be cowed by union leadership into walkouts that shoved off course the education of Chicago Public Schools’ 330,000 children.
The Tribune’s choice for the leadership of the CTU, the Members First Caucus, has been around for a while. It was soundly defeated two to one in the 2019 CTU leadership election by the CORE slate led by Jesse Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates.
Hoping to do better this time around, they’ve fielded a full slate of candidates for the May 2022 union election. Members First are hoping to benefit from more extensive media coverage, “Chicago Tonight,” Chicago’s long-form television news program on WTTW—the local PBS affiliate—profiled them favorably. But they are hoping to gain votes out of a sense of frustration with the recent lockout. “What Members First is fighting for,” they declared, “Our members deserve to have the best representation, protection and service that CTU can provide. The current CTU leadership has greatly tarnished our reputation to the general public.”
Members First is also trying to fan the flames of purported financial chicanery if not outright corruption by the current leadership by posting, “The dues paying members demand transparency and accountability.” They further declared, “The financial stability of our union is a major concern for our members. Out of control donations to political races and other unchecked spending has eliminated our reserves.” It’s hard to read these words without thinking they are calling for some kind of outside government intervention in the CTU.
Members First has in the past drawn its support from teachers who live in some of Chicago neighborhoods including Mt. Greenwood where a large number of Chicago cops make their homes. So, it’s not surprising that the hyper-local news site patch.com, ran a column—“33 Million Reasons Why Fed-Up Teachers Want To Unseat CTU Bosses”—by former Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and disgraced Chicago Reader editor Mark Konkol. The “33 million”—later rounded down to 30 million—was the cooked-up number by Konkol of the lost wages during the lockout.
While Konkol’s math is questionable, his red-baiting of the CTU is revolting. “For years, I’ve been writing about CTU leaders’ penchant for using taxpayer-funded dues to further the goals of union leaders pushing a socialist political agenda,” Konkol wrote. He gave plenty of room for Members First spokesperson Josh Brown to attack the CTU leadership. According to Brown,
Dues from members should be used to directly support members in their schools and classrooms, first and foremost. We don’t have to be in the middle of every political fight in Chicago and the state of Illinois.
There have also been a surprising number of media attacks on Stacy Davis Gates, the CTU’s vice president, for her alleged political ambitions, including for desiring a possible run for Mayor of Chicago. It’s as if the potential candidacy of an outspoken Black women and trade union leader is by itself illegitimate, that the only legitimate candidates for Mayor are corporate lawyers or longtime Democratic Party families, like the Daleys, or hatchet men like Rahm Emmanuel.
But the hostility to the CTU runs deeper than the recent lockout. The Chicago Tribune is pretty straightforward about their longstanding grudge with the CTU:
There’ve been too many instances of the union behaving more like a political party than an advocacy group for teachers. To find examples, simply rewind back to the union’s decision earlier this month to hit the city with an illegal walkout that robbed CPS children of five days of in-class instruction, and kept teachers from getting paid for four days.
That’s on top of the 14-day strike that CTU leadership inflicted on Chicago and its children in 2019. We haven’t forgotten some of the outlandish demands union leaders made during that strike. Calls for more affordable housing in the city. Rent control. Aid for the homeless. All very worthy issues, and each having nothing to do with collective bargaining on a teachers’ contract.
“Behaving like a political party” by breaking beyond the bounds of traditional collective bargaining is the real crime of the decade-long CORE leadership of the CTU. The CTU has provided an alternative vision of what trade unionism could be in the United States that has inspired many across the country, as well as shock and revulsion from others in the political establishment. Embracing a political program for fully funding public education, opposing privatization, addressing the issues of race, class, and criminalization of youth has transformed the discussion of public sector unionism.
If the opposition to the CTU rested in the hands of a small caucus of conservative teachers and anti-union editorial writers it wouldn’t warrant much concern but there’s been a change in the posture of the national Democratic Party towards the teacher unions. A recent tweet from the Washington D.C. Democratic Party endorsing the Members First slate, which was later disavowed, is revealing. But one tweet doesn’t tell the bigger story, which is the Biden administration’s campaign to normalize the pandemic, and the trouble they are having in that from the teachers’ unions.
Teachers unions are flexing their muscles nationwide. This weekend [January 25, 2022] in Montclair, N.J., an affluent suburb of New York City, the union also delayed a planned reopening of schools. And in Bellevue, Wash., district officials sought an injunction against the union after teachers, concerned about safety, refused to participate in in-person instruction.
These actions may complicate President Biden’s plan to reopen schools in his first 100 days in office. He has vowed to throw the strength of the federal government behind an effort to “reopen school doors as quickly as possible.”
The year-long campaign to re-open the schools by the Biden administration, while it has simultaneously given up on the fight to end the pandemic, has created a potentially combustible political situation in the schools across the country. The opposition of CORE and CTU to this bipartisan consensus of reopening, regardless of the body count, seems to have triggered a political green light for the many-sided attacks they now face.
The CTU continues to be in the vanguard of teacher unions and a change in leadership or taming the current one is the goal of the political establishment from D.C. to Chicago. It feels like we are at the beginning of a campaign for regime change in the CTU. The political establishment cares little for union democracy. The CORE leadership of the CTU is likely to be reelected this May but that won’t be the end of the campaign against the CTU.
Ron Carey was the first reform leader of the Teamsters union in 1991 after he won reelection in 1996, his opponents from Teamster employers to reactionary union officials had to rely on the federal government intervention to oust him from office following the 1997 UPS strike. While the Teamsters in the 1990s and the CTU today may seem worlds apart, what they share in common is that they are models for workers to fight back that cannot long be tolerated by the system.
We shall see how events unfold in the run-up to and following the CTU election in May. But, a broader campaign to defend the CTU from the media smears, political attacks, or even government intervention may become necessary.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Charles Edward Miller; modified by Tempest.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer, and is a member of the Tempest Collective Steering Committee.