Chicago Teachers Union Leadership Faces Competition

Fresh from a standoff with the city where some 25,000 Chicago teachers didn’t report to their classrooms, Chicago Teachers Union leadership has another fight on its hands. This one comes from within its own ranks.

The Members First slate Tuesday began actively calling for members to unseat president Jesse Sharkey and vice president Stacy Davis Gates, part of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, or CORE caucus, that has been in power since 2010.

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There have intermittently been challenges from the Members First coalition of educators, but that competition is ramping up with the election scheduled for May 21 with Members First hiring a professional campaign manager and debuting a produced digital ad.

“Having a union for us is essential. But that just isn’t what we have today. The current leadership of the CTU sees work stoppages and strikes as the first step and not the last one. They are far more focused on being in front of the camera and advancing their own political careers than delivering for us,” the narrator says in the video.

It’s a not-so-veiled reference to Davis Gates, whose name frequently comes up as a contender for mayor.

When asked about her political aspirations earlier this month on “Chicago Tonight,” Davis Gates didn’t rule it out flat, and on Tuesday said that she remains focused on her two current jobs: Being a mom to three CPS students, and serving union members in her role with CTU.

She also referenced a previous CTU leader who’d oft-been mentioned as a mayoral contender, Karen Lewis, who was CORE’s leader until a battle with cancer forced her to step aside in 2014.

“There were voters who believed that her visionary, bold and loving leadership could lead the city of Chicago in the way that she led our union. That’s an honor,” Davis Gates said. “That the leadership that comes out of our union is desired by the people who have benefited from the work of our union.”

She also said she’s proud of “the footprint our members have left in shifting and transforming the political discourse in Chicago that is unprecedented. Our union has become an anchor in progressive politics in the city of Chicago and the state of Illinois.”

Among those victories, Davis Gates listed helping to secure a moratorium on school closures, filling in gaps during the pandemic with mutual aid efforts, negotiating resources for homeless youth (60% of whom are Black), and a contract that will put nurses in every school.

Much, though not all of these efforts, were secured after tense, bitter standoffs with the mayor’s office, including strikes or work actions that have led to canceled school each of the past three years.

There’s no love lost between the CTU and the mayor. Gates recently said Lightfoot is on a “kamikaze mission” to destroy CPS.

See: Rank-and-File CTU Members Vote on New COVID-19 Mitigations

Those looking to win control of the CTU say they oppose that combative style.

“As teachers we should be able to teach our students by example how we find solutions, without attacking others, without using harmful rhetoric,” said CPS high school civics teacher and Members First slate candidate Froylan “Froy” Jiménez . “This profession was a noble profession which people regarded as a solution-markers, people that taught our youth. I would like to go back to that.”

The caucus’s candidate for president, Mary Esposito-Usterbowski, who was an elementary teacher and is now a district-wide psychologist for CPS, frequently emphasized “collaboration.”

“We need to work collaboratively with all parties. Parents need a seat at the table.  We need to work together to improve learning conditions for children and working conditions for our members. Because if our members’ working conditions are good, we know that directly impacts our students’ learning,” she said.

When asked whether that spirit of collaboration should extend to the mayor’s office, Esposito-Usterbowski said “our goal is to work collaboratively with all stakeholders.”

Esposito-Usterbowski is a member of the House of Delegates, CTU’s governing board. She was elected three years ago as part of the Members First caucus.

She praised guarantees in the CTU’s current contract but is unsatisfied with this month’s work stoppage over COVID-19 safety and its end result.

At this point, though it’s subject to change, teachers will not be paid for the four days of missed school.

“Our teachers have to fight for every single thing that they need, and members shouldn’t have to take four days off of work to get basic safety precautions in place,” Esposito-Usterbowski said.

She said Members First is dedicated to transparency.

Unions are not subject to the same campaign contribution disclosure laws as are candidates for public office, so it’s difficult to gauge financial backing.

Union rules, still being finalized for this cycle, call for donations only from CTU members – no non-members can give money or in-kind contributions.

Davis-Gates characterized the challenge as an “inter-squad scrimmage.”

“We’re all on the same team and we all will be on the same team because this is our union,” she said.

While the union’s membership will exclusively decide who will helm the CTU, the results are sure to impact all of Chicago, particularly families with school-aged students.

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

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