It has only been a few weeks since the latest conflict between Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union came to a tumultuous end on January 10th. The 4-day work stoppage, the result of Mayor Lightfoot locking teachers out of their online accounts after teachers voted to temporarily transition to remote instruction, caused bitter divisions within Chicago about education and childcare in the midst of this two-year-long pandemic. In the coming weeks, Chicago teachers will continue to navigate the difficult circumstances surrounding safety conditions in schools and will continue to pressure CPS to adhere to new guidelines. But attention will also shift in the coming weeks to the election on May 20th that will determine the next leadership slate of CTU. The current leadership organization, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), has led CTU since 2010 when Karen Lewis and her coalition of educators won control of the union after years of organizing. CORE is being challenged by the more conservative Members First Caucus which also ran against CORE in the 2019 election.
CORE has been at the forefront of Left organizing in the city of Chicago since they won control of CTU more than a decade ago. After sparking a nationwide wave of teacher strikes with their 2012 strike in response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s austerity policies, CTU under the leadership of CORE has continued to reimagine what the role of an urban professional union can be in the 21st century. Through its interventions in politics and its attempts at bargaining over broad issues plaguing Chicago, including the housing crisis, CTU has been integral in forming a coalition between labor unions, neighborhood organizations, and politicians that has resulted in a small-scale but meaningful ascendance of progressive (sometimes anti-capitalist) politicians to Chicago City Council.
Now headed by President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, the union has had a series of conflicts with Mayor Lightfoot since she took office in 2019. A two-week strike in October 2019 that saw CTU team with SEIU was followed by a conflict over elementary school teachers returning to classrooms during the pandemic in February 2021. And most recently with the Omicron surge, teachers faced Mayor Lightfoot’s scorn again as she refused to allow them to work from home and forced the city to deal with another work stoppage in its schools. While CTU has made its name not just locally but nationally during the last decade as a militant union confronting broad issues of austerity, the threat from Members First in the upcoming election comes at a precarious time for the union and should be taken seriously by CTU members and leftists in Chicago.
There are signs that the time may be ripe for Members First in 2022. In the 2019 election, Members First managed to accrue only a third of the vote within CTU, but times have changed. The fatigue that many Chicagoans (and CTU members) are experiencing during the pandemic rendered the latest CPS-CTU work stoppage divisive at best. Continued work stoppages mean continued loss of pay for teachers who have been asked to sacrifice repeatedly during Sharkey’s reign. Members First, which is running on a classic business unionism platform by pushing for more cooperation with CPS and narrowing the union’s demands, is trying to capitalize on this moment of discontent. Promising to emphasize teacher pay, the group has mercilessly attacked CORE leadership on social media since the latest work stoppage began. The group’s Facebook page is filled with anti-Sharkey and anti-Davis Gates screeds. During the lockout, members on the Facebook page debated the merits of breaking ranks with the union and clocking in at schools. CPS was quick to highlight that 13% of teachers broke ranks with the union and attended buildings during the lockout, an indication that this labor action was more unpopular within the union than previous actions.
The fact-of-the-matter is that Chicago, just like the rest of the country, is deeply divided about how to respond to COVID. Teachers are split too. The enormous disparities in vaccinations and testing among different student populations was reported on during the lockout and demonstrates racial, class, and neighborhood divisions that also exist during this debate. CORE’s attempts at bargaining for the safety of children and educators during the Omicron surge was noble, but aside from the distribution of KN95 masks and promises by the district to test more students, CTU’s demands went largely unaddressed. The district rejected opt-out testing for students and also rejected district-wide remote learning (only individual schools with 30% of teachers absent or 40% of students instructed to quarantine will go remote). Members First has been eager to remind CTU members that they lost four days of pay in exchange for very little.
A loss for CORE in May would be devastating for the Left and a huge victory for corporatists in Chicago. Nothing would embolden the insidious network of privatizers within the field of education more than the defeat of CORE and the rise of conservative leadership. CORE’s defeat would be arguably the biggest victory for Mayor Lightfoot during her tenure. Members First’s tactics, which depict the actions of union leadership as divorced from the will of the rank-and-file and highlight the monetary consequences of labor actions, are the same tactics that have been used by conservative opponents of unions for decades. The anti-union Illinois Policy Institute that has sought to destroy CTU for years will do backflips if Members First wins. Members First claims that CORE has “politicized” education in Chicago, but of course we know that the conservative assault on public education far predates the rise of CORE.
It is difficult to imagine how Chicago would be different today (and different going forward) if CORE were not leading CTU. CORE has energetically fought the trend of school closures, turnaround schools, and the proliferation of charter schools that had become commonplace within CPS. Because of CTU’s labor actions, there has been a shift away from those tactics by the mayor’s Board of Education. The recent CTU strikes have also won more nurses and social workers in schools and CORE’s lobbying in Springfield resulted in legislation to create an entirely elected school board in Chicago by 2027.
There is no question that the emerging Progressive and Socialist Caucuses in City Council would be weaker today without CTU’s endorsements and support. It is impossible to know just how popular Members First is at the moment, but Chicago’s socialists should take their threat seriously and work to combat it. If you know a CPS teacher, talk to them about how they plan to vote. If you are a CPS teacher, discuss the importance of this election with your colleagues. Independent political organizations in Chicago’s wards and the litany of progressive politicians that have benefitted from CTU’s endorsement and CORE’s organizing philosophy must remind Chicagoans of the importance of a militant teacher’s union. Now is not the time, as CORE grapples with a conservative backlash to its approach from within CTU and from the media, for silence.
The last two years have been immensely taxing for workers across the world. The pandemic has also presented enormous challenges for students. The mayor’s lockout of CPS teachers in the midst of the pandemic created even more strains on children, parents, and teachers. The mayor’s actions created an opening for the conservative wing of CTU to take power. Chicago’s progressive and socialist Left should take notice.