There soon will be a new president of the Chicago Teachers Union — as three contenders battle for the chance to lead one of Chicago’s most influential unions through a new contract, the historic transition to an elected school board and the persistent COVID-19 pandemic.
This race has been particularly rancorous, with two election-related lawsuits set to be decided after the union’s 25,000 members cast votes Friday. Since there is no public polling, one Chicago labor researcher said “it’s anybody’s guess” which of the three slates will win the “heated” contest that has drawn significant attention during a busy election season.
“The community should care about this election because the Chicago Teachers Union plays such a big role in Chicago politics, and these are the teachers of our children,” said Steven Ashby, professor in the University of Illinois’ labor education program and co-author of “A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike,” on the 2012 CTU walkout.
CTU has elected about a dozen presidents since it first opened its polls in 1937. The last notably contentious election was in 2010, when Karen Lewis’ Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators prevailed over four other slates.
CORE now faces challenges from the Members First Caucus and the Respect, Educate, Advocate and Lead (REAL) Caucus. CORE easily defeated the Members First leadership slate in the last election, in 2019, but the caucus says it is receiving more support now than ever before. REAL, meanwhile, formed in January following the union’s polarizing decision to refuse in-person work for four days during the height of the omicron surge.
CTU holds elections every three years for its top four positions — president, vice president, recording secretary and financial secretary. The union also elects its executive board and representatives to the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers conventions.
Union members can select individual candidates or an entire slate. Officer candidates must secure 50% plus one vote to avoid a June 10 run-off. Winners take office July 1.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey announced in February he will step down when his term ends next month. Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is vying for the top spot alongside CORE vice presidential candidate Jackson Potter. Recording secretary Christel Williams-Hayes and financial secretary Maria Moreno are running again as part of the CORE slate.
The caucus won reelection in May 2019, just weeks after Lori Lightfoot was elected mayor over CTU’s pick, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Leaders for CTU and City Hall have been at loggerheads ever since. The union waged a strike in October 2019 that lasted 11 school days before forging a five-year contract that includes significant raises for paraprofessionals; class size caps and a social worker and nurse in every school by the 2023-24 school year.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit Chicago less than five months later, and Chicago Public Schools moved to remote learning for the rest of the 2019-20 school year and the start of the following school year. After contentious negotiations and the CTU’s vote to refuse to teach in person, which delayed schools’ reopening, the union and district reached a COVID-19 safety agreement early in 2021 that paved the way for students to return to buildings in waves.
CTU and CPS failed to ink a COVID-19 agreement for this school year until January, after the union’s rank-and-file members — with 73% of the vote — elected to refuse in-person work amid rising COVID-19 case numbers in Chicago and around the country. The district canceled classes for five days in response. Union members approved a measure to resume teaching in classrooms with about 56% of the vote.
Looking ahead, CORE leaders say they are focused on targeting the district’s controversial contract with the custodial services firm Aramark, adding supports for thousands of homeless CPS students, ensuring school communities are fully funded and increasing protections for the district’s most vulnerable students, among other priorities.
“We hear people say, ‘Concentrate on bread-and-butter (issues),’ and I want to make this clear: We don’t have to concentrate on bread and butter when there’s an entire buffet available for all of us,” Davis Gates said.
“And it is up to us to dream, imagine, advocate for and secure the entire buffet in an equitable manner, especially for those who need it the most. So CORE is committed to a vision of this city that we have not seen yet, but is entirely possible.”
Members First presidential candidate Mary Esposito-Usterbowski says Davis Gates cannot deliver on promises because her relationship with city leaders “is so toxic.” Esposito-Usterbowski said CTU members took a financial hit with the January work stoppage “for a couple of KN95 masks, so that leaders could publicly weaken the mayor.” Members First would have handled the situation differently, she said.
“We wouldn’t move and jump to a strike to strike,” Esposito-Usterbowski said. “We’re going to work and meet and have discussions and attempt to build relationships with all stakeholders. That’s not something that’s been done.”
She said her group has had several discussions about creating a strike fund to ensure members do not lose money if a strike “has to happen.” Other priorities include increasing the amount teachers receive for classroom supplies from $250 to $750; expanding vision and dental benefits; changing the 1996 residency policy in the wake of a nationwide teacher shortage to allow teachers to live outside Chicago; and adding back a 30-minute prep period for elementary teachers at the start of the school day.
Vice presidential candidate Cassandra “Sandi” Hoggatt, recording secretary candidate María Soto and financial secretary candidate Philip Weiss round out the Members First slate.
This leadership team filed a lawsuit in April against CTU, accusing the union of unfairly extending a deadline to file election paperwork. CTU said in response it “reasonably interpreted and applied its own election rules” and asked for the suit to be dismissed. The next court date is scheduled for August.
CTU filed its own suit in March against former top Lightfoot adviser Lisa Schneider-Fabes, accusing her of interfering in the election with a targeted social media campaign from a group called Chicago Teachers United promoting Members First. The caucus said it “stands against outside interference in our internal election.” Schneider-Fabes has until June 4 to file a response to the suit. In a statement at the time she said the group “acted at all times with applicable law” but also had already “ceased all operations.”
The third group in this fight is the REAL caucus, which its leader says contains “many members” from CORE and outside the caucus who were fed up with the handling of the January work stoppage.
“Parents were left out in the cold,” REAL presidential candidate Darnell Dowd said. “We can’t predict the pandemic. We understand that. However, we can plan. And there were times we should have planned in December when the numbers were going up. Parents should have been alerted to an action or possible action.”
REAL says it is committed to reestablishing “a large and aggressive” grievance-handling department, resisting the privatization of janitorial and building services and defending members against “bully” administrators and “toxic” school leadership.
The REAL slate includes vice presidential candidate Joey McDermott, recording secretary candidate Erika Meza and financial secretary candidate Alison Eichhorn. Dowd said he is very confident his group will triumph this week.
“We all got into this race to win. We are fueled by the hope that we can affect change,” he said. “And so we believe May 20th our members are going to show and vote for us.”