Socialist Alternative

Chicago Teachers Union Election Raises Key Issues

Published on

The 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike led by the then newly-elected Caucus Of Rank and file Educators (CORE) and hugely popular amongst working class Chicagoans is rightly seen as a landmark in the revitalization of teachers’ unions. It was cited as a key inspiration by many of the key activists in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma who launched the teachers’ revolt in 2018. The strike reversed years of supine leadership which had failed to fight bipartisan funding cuts and the regime of high-stakes testing which was used to shutter public schools and redirect public funds into charter schools. But in the decade that followed, CORE has slipped far away from providing the bold leadership that inspired educators during its first years in office.

What teachers and supporters have seen in each of the succeeding contract and school-safety fights has been a weaker result, from the ten-minutes-to-midnight contract deal in 2016 which Socialist Alternative analyzed here, to the drawn out strike which failed to achieve its stated goals in 2019 and more recently the bruising but unsuccessful battles in 2021 and 2022 over the unsafe reopening of schools. CORE’s early impulse to reach out to community groups, for example in the 2013 fight against school closures, has been replaced by a focus on electoral politics and a slippage into the mainstream of the Democratic Party. The 2019 strike ended, not with the strong contract that members had sacrificed for but with promises of legislative action to restore the union’s legal right to bargain over class sizes and to create an elected school board. Winning the legal right to bargain over class sizes won’t mean much unless funding is available to hire more teachers. Despite super majorities in both chambers and a Democratic Governor, the Democrats have no plans to tax the rich corporations that dominate state politics.

The belief that the key power of public sector unions lies in their “relationship” with capitalist politicians (almost always Democratic) rather than workers collective power in the workplace and mobilizing working class communities is a core tenet of most conservative union leaders. CORE came to power in the CTU, as the Democratic Party nationally under Barack Obama unleashed a full-scale attack on teacher unions nationally in support of the neoliberal agenda of privatizing public education. CORE to its great credit was not afraid to strike or mobilize working class communities but a decisive flaw was the failure to clearly break with the failed “political strategy” of supporting a wing of the Democratic establishment.

CTU’s Failed Political Strategy

The political slide has always been there, from then-newly elected President Karen Lewis’s compromise over Act 7 – which severely limited in advance what could be gained in the 2012 strike – to her personal endorsement of the weakly progressive (and clearly careerist) Democrat Chuy Garcia for Mayor in 2015. President Lewis first announced her support for Garcia by appointing him the keynote speaker at the union’s political fundraising dinner. This fait accompli was endorsed after the fact by the union’s Executive Board and House of Delegates, in a method which has become a hallmark of CORE’s methods. As a REAL supporter recently put it: “this became a pattern of behavior both in CORE meetings and in CTU, where situations were engineered to produce a specific outcome and  democratic processes became a formality, an afterthought.”  

Chuy Garcia has a long history of claiming a progressive mantle while supporting candidates of the conservative Democratic machine; in that same election cycle he supported at least one such incumbent against a CTU-endorsed candidate. But under CORE’s leadership, including very prominently then V-P and former revolutionary socialist Jesse Sharkey, the union became Chuy’s chief supporter, staking its political capital together with huge sums of money and thousands of hours of its members’ time to the campaign. Garcia was able to get into the runoff based on his reputation as a clean-government progressive but he easily lost to the hated Rahm Emanuel after he refused to say how he would pay for the reforms he said he was going to bring

After four more years of Rahm’s corrupt rule, the CTU endorsed Democratic Cook County party chair Toni Preckwinkle in 2019. This was an obvious political blunder. Machine hack Preckwinkle’s humiliating defeat by newcomer Lori Lightfoot was the punishment for the failure to seize the clear opening that had existed for the CTU and its community allies to put forward a candidate not linked to the existing party structures. By embracing Preckwinkle the union went in the opposite direction. 

This was the backdrop to the bungled 2019 strike which saw the union pleading with Lightfoot to keep her election promises, instead of mounting the community-based campaign that was needed to win the union’s demand for 5,000 new hires – an enormously important demand which the union never even shared with the public.  As this year’s endorsements show, CORE is now more firmly committed than ever to politics as usual, giving up any attempt to challenge the system. During the recent Chicago ward map dispute, in which the Black and Latino caucuses disagreed, based not on any political program but strictly on the basis of identity politics over whose electoral map would win out, the Latino caucus was split by defections including that of CTU-endorsed members of the Progressive and Democratic Socialist caucuses. 

Any notion that this was on the basis of genuinely overcoming ethnic divisions was dispelled by Politico, which revealed that the real power broker was the Democratic machine of the disgraced and indicted former Speaker of the State House, Mike Madigan:  “​​Sources said it was Michael Madigan’s machine that steamrolled Latino Caucus members into supporting the Black Caucus map. The council faced a May 19 deadline to approve a map to avoid a referendum letting voters decide. Powerful unions aligned with Madigan’s 13th Ward operation, including the Chicago Teachers Union and United Working Families, said it would be in the Latino Caucus members’ best interests to align with the Black Caucus.”  CTU President Sharkey had previously joined with other Chicago labor leaders in defending Madigan as he was faced with corruption charges; evidently this loyalty to the Democratic Machine hasn’t gone away. 

The Growth of Opposition in CTU

While the union leadership focused on electoral politics, Chicago Public School (CPS) management was going after veteran teachers and activists in the schools through aggressive management methods as well as funding formulas which forced principals and Local School Councils to choose between hiring teachers and keeping libraries and art, language and music programs functioning. Instead of organizing around the grievances that resulted from this process, the union cut back on its presence in the workplace and has fired some popular staffers in the process. Inexplicably, when 413 Black educators were unfairly laid off during the 2011 mass layoffs under the so-called “turnaround” policy, the union hired a private law firm, not for a fee but on a contingency basis; when the case was settled, the law firm took $4 million of the $9.25 million settlement, leaving the fired educators only $12,700 each. The lawyer the Union hired is Robin Potter, mother of CORE founder and current V-P candidate Jackson Potter. 

These failures and derelictions have created an opening for the conservative “back to basics” caucus Members First, who call for greater cooperation with CPS management, rejecting a broader struggle to save public education, and mocking the “woke” language the union leadership have employed in public. Members First is also seizing on the issue of millions of dollars in political donations which the union has received during CORE’s term in office. That Members First represent a conservative trend is confirmed by their call for an end to CPS’s City of Chicago residency requirement – a demand popular with conservative police and firefighters unions and which would widen the gap between educators and the school community.

Members First would lead the union in a direction of greater collaboration with the very school board and Democratic-controlled city hall that has striven to privatize public education and destroy CTU. 

With union leadership elections coming up this month, the recent emergence of a new caucus, REAL (“Respect-Educate-Advocate-Lead”) is important. CTU members deserve a democratic, militant alternative both to CORE’s increasingly empty social justice rhetoric and mainstream political endorsements, and Members First’s conservative direction. 

The REAL caucus was founded by former members of CORE, who announced their resignations from CORE at the same time as they announced the new formation. REAL has made important criticisms of CORE’s failure to effectively conduct day to day struggles against bullying principals and the most stressful working conditions that most veteran members have ever experienced. They have also pointed out CORE’s slide into undemocratic practices, such as the appointed Election Committee’s scandalous vote to ignore the election rules that it is supposed to enforce, in a situation where 154 of CORE’s candidates had failed to submit their paperwork on time. Much of REAL’s platform speaks to the issues of union democracy and stronger representation on the job. Several of REAL’s founders have previously called on CORE leadership to change course but have evidently decided that a clean break with CORE is necessary.

The question in members’ minds, inevitably, is “what is REAL’s plan to restore what we’ve lost over the past decades?”

The REAL caucus gets down to the nitty gritty of contract negotiations with a set of proposed contract demands, such as prep time for elementary educators, an aggressive renegotiation of the length and structure of the school day, stronger class size limits, school-level teacher input into curriculum and an end to “Student Based Budgeting” which incentivizes principals to lay off experienced teachers. They state that they welcome further input and, very importantly, they say that they will open bargaining sessions to members and the public using electronic media.

REAL also calls for some limits to the pay of elected officers, limiting their annual raises to the percentage of raises that are bargained in the contract for the members and calling for an end to double dipping (the late Karen Lewis received three salaries – one from the CTU, one from the Illinois Federation of Teachers and one from the national union, the American Federation of Teachers; current V-P and Presidential candidate Stacy Davis-Gates gets two). But these measures, though important, do not rise to the level that’s required. The historic demand of working class fighters since the Paris Commune has been for elected officials to receive only the average wage of the workers they represent, and this is the simplest way to remove a financial motive from the pursuit of union office.

The Change of Course Needed

To reverse the damage and demoralization of the past twenty years of attacks on public education means reversing the massive defunding that has been neoliberalism’s main weapon. This can only be addressed by building a mass movement to tax the rich, the only way to get the money for the schools that students, educators and the working class need. For years, CORE has marched behind a giant banner calling for a tax on La Salle Street’s trillions. This demand needs to become a reality, which will not be done by the Democratic establishment. It will require a mass, working class movement, connecting all of the demands and struggles of the CTU’s membership to the broader struggles of our class. This means moving far beyond performative statements of support for social struggles, like the union’s bland resolution about the Supreme Court’s leaked attack on women’s rights, which says the union “stands in defense” of abortion rights but commits the union to nothing except to “encourage its members to participate in activities… to support the right to abortion, contraception and other reproductive rights.” 

REAL should clearly and boldly call for bringing CTU’s platform and power to bear in the battle to defend Roe v Wade rather than leaving it up to the failed organizations in the orbit of the Democratic Party. A leading role in building mass demonstrations, strikes and walkouts would help raise the union’s profile before convening meetings to build a campaign to Tax Amazon and LaSalle Street. Only mass social movements can win on the scale required to fully fund Chicago’s public schools with nurses, librarians, mental health counselors and genuinely safe working conditions. This must be accompanied by a new political strategy of endorsing independent left candidates standing on a clear pro-working class program and pointing towards establishing a workers’ party.

REAL needs to campaign to rebuild the union’s profile, fulfilling the promise of the 2012 strike which was hugely popular with working class Chicagoans fed up with the Democrats’ neoliberal attacks. This can and should include connecting the CTU to other labor struggles like the groundbreaking unionization drives at Starbucks and Amazon. When those companies retaliate against unionizing workers, CTU should help mobilize a coordinated response from organized labor that would include a program of escalation such as coordinated sympathy walkouts, slowdowns, and strikes. 

With new waves of attacks coming down, and given the absolute bankruptcy of the Democratic Party when it comes to defending the rights of workers, women, LGBTQ+ and young people, a mass rebuilding of the labor movement is what is required – and it’s already happening

Socialist Alternative calls for a vote for the REAL caucus in the May 20th CTU elections because we believe that their focus on contract enforcement and union democracy provide the best basis for rebuilding the CTU. But we also call on the REAL caucus to take on board the above political strategies to take the union forward. Despite the disillusionment with CORE, we recognize many teachers will vote for them to keep Members First out. But a strong vote for REAL in the election will give voice to the desire for a fighting policy. If the election goes to a second round between Members First and CORE we are for keeping Members First out.  

Latest articles


UAW’s April 19 Vote At Volkswagen In Chattanooga Will Set Tone For Unions In 2024

Across the nation, workers are talking about the United Autoworkers Union (UAW), its contract victory, and the approach of its new militant leadership. That...

How Can Unions Turn The Tide For Working People?

Unions are enjoying record-high popularity, and the labor movement is more well-liked than any corporation, politician, party, or pop star. This is especially among...

Wisconsin Grad Students Organize Against Notorious Anti-Union Law “Act 10”

August Easton-Calabria is a graduate student in the TAA at UW-Madison, writing in personal capacity. Graduate workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and members...

NALC Letter Carriers Fight For Open Bargaining

Tyler Vasseur is a letter carrier in NALC Branch 9, writing in personal capacity. Hit by years of inflation, and inspired by examples of working...