On May 20th, members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) will vote to determine who will lead the union over the next three years. The CTU, under the leadership of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), has built its reputation by winning an upset election in 2010, and then leading a series of strikes and other political battles during the last decade. CORE has been the vanguard of teacher unionism in the United States.
It’s hard to imagine the shape of teacher unionism—certainly across the United States—without CORE’s influence and example. They have changed the whole nature of the discussion about teacher unions, the racist system of public education funding, class size, police murders, the school-to-prison pipeline, and many more issues.
CORE activists have played a major role in upending long entrenched political fiefdoms across Chicago. Its support for the struggle for environmental justice on the city’s Southeast side is but one of numerous important examples of how CTU has chosen to use its political weight. For many years now, the CTU under CORE’s leadership has been the axle around which much of Chicago’s progressive activism in working class communities have revolved.
Most recently the CTU’s House of Delegates passed a resolution affirming that,
[T]he Chicago Teachers Union and the American Federation of Teachers, both overwhelmingly women’s organizations, have long been on record as pro-choice unions that support a woman’s right to reproductive freedom including the right to abortion.
It further resolved that,
[T]he Chicago Teachers Union will publicly stand in defense of abortion and reproductive rights and will encourage its members to participate in activities including rallies and demonstrations, lobbying and political campaigns, educational events, and other actions to support the right to abortion, contraception and other reproductive rights.
If other local and national unions more regularly followed the lead of the CTU we would have a fundamentally better, and more dynamic, labor movement in the United States. Unfortunately, CORE influenced local unions whether in the public or private sector remain few in number. Yet, CORE itself has proved resilient in a way that few other reform movements have in modern times.
At the same time, CORE is facing revitalized enemies and rivals since their job action in January over COVID-19 safety protocols; a job action that most CTU leaders will admit was not a win. Four days of lost pay without any significant concessions has tarnished the union’s image. Old enemies like the Chicago Tribune smell blood in the water and have called for regime change in the CTU.
The Members First caucus, an old rival endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, is fielding a full slate of candidates for the union’s offices. The REAL Caucus is a new rival made up of some former CORE activists, who went public with their challenge to CORE soon after Jesse Sharkey, the current CTU president, announced that he would not run for reelection. Members First and the REAL Caucus feel that their time has come.
The CTU election is the most important union election taking place this year. Long time CORE members and CTU leaders Stacy Davis Gates and Jackson Potter are respectively running for President and Vice-President of the local union. In 2019, CORE defeated Members First two to one in the union election.
Tempest has interviewed and hosted forums with CORE and CTU activists on key issues facing the workplace activists during the first two years of the pandemic on many occasions. In February, we posted our defense of the CTU from the scurrilous attacks upon it by the Chicago Tribune; attacks which were opportunistically embraced by the Members First caucus.
We want to clearly state that Tempest calls for a vote for Stacy Davis Gates, Jackson Potter, and the entire CORE slate for executive board of the CTU. We cannot take any steps backwards from what has been achieved over the last decade by CORE’s leadership of the CTU. All that Members First caucus has put forward as a political program is striking a more “collaborative” relationship with Chicago’s anti-union Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
The Real Caucus seems largely motivated out of an intense hatred for Stacy Davis Gates, the most prominent African-American labor leader in Chicago. Black women who have led the CTU have always faced mockery and derision in Chicago. The late Karen Lewis, for example, the first CORE President of the CTU, was smeared with a racist cartoon by the Chicago Tribune that darkened her face and portrayed her as morbidly obese.
Meanwhile, Members First and REAL Caucus portray Stacy Davis Gates as a tyrant who crushes any dissent from the ranks, and wields the strike weapon of the union irresponsibly. One of the few positive profiles of Stacy Davis Gates to appear in the mainstream media was Chicago magazine’s “Stacy Davis Gates Won’t Back Down.” “We don’t win half the things we achieved in 2019 without Stacy,” says Jackson Potter, her running mate.
However, the CTU’s heavy reliance on the Democratic Party for its political agenda is fraught with pitfalls. The implosion of Mike Madigan’s political machine with its close ties to Chicago’s trade unions including the CTU, has smeared the entire labor movement. The CTU’s all out campaign for Toni Preckwinkle’s 2019 bid for mayor of Chicago was a disaster. These and other political missteps cannot be repeated in the future.
While the CTU has also funded and supported other independent and progressive political formations, including the United Working Families, they have largely proved to be ginger groups to the Democratic Party, largely keeping union activists in the Democratic Party not a road out of it. CORE and the CTU are stuck in the traditional cul-de-sac of labor and Democratic Party politics.
CORE is also now the longtime incumbent leadership caucus of the CTU. Many younger teachers know nothing else. As CORE’s founding members and longtime activists move into middle-age and retirement, recruiting the next generation of teacher union activist politics will be a top priority but what will their politics be?
With little more than a week to go before the election further unfounded attacks and smears on CORE’s slate should be expected. The eyes of many are on the outcome of this election. The CTU remains the vanguard of teacher unionism and a vote for CORE will keep the union in the forefront of these struggles.
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Joe Allen is a long-time labor activist and writer, and is a member of the Tempest Collective Steering Committee.