After 12 years as one of the primary faces of the Chicago Teachers Union, Jesse Sharkey is returning to the classroom.
Sharkey was first elected vice president in 2010, when Karen Lewis was elected CTU’s president. He served as the union’s top leader multiple times while Lewis dealt with health struggles, and was elected to the presidency in 2019. Sharkey says their decision to run was based on what they saw as the “dire need” to change public education.
“Schools were being wracked by closures, by corporate ‘de-form’ – education reform that made students and our school communities into targets and objects of derision, and we felt like we needed to form a unified coalition between parents, students, and educators and take back some of that power,” Sharkey said.
His time in leadership has been marked by multiple strikes, a contentious relationship with City Hall and a protracted pandemic. Sharkey acknowledged the difficulties of the job, both politically and personally.
“It takes its toll. It was time for me to do something different,” Sharkey said. He also noted what he sees as major CTU accomplishments during his time in leadership, like contracts establishing minimum staffing levels and maximum class sizes for schools, as well as a law changing the CPS board from appointed to elected. “A lot of the things that motivated me to run, I think we’ve achieved.”
During Sharkey’s tenure as vice president, the CTU launched a strike in 2012 – its first in 25 years. Since then, the union’s engaged in multiple actions, including as recently as this winter during a debate over COVID-19 safety protocols. Some parents and union members have aired concerns that the CTU has become too combative or political, and Sharkey’s caucus is facing a challenge in the upcoming union election. But he says that’s due to the CTU’s highly democratic nature.
“That’s actually a good thing … I wouldn’t confuse the fact that there’s a contested election for somehow the idea that our union doesn’t still have resolve,” Sharkey said. And while he thinks the challenges of COVID-19 have prompted CTU leaders to take tough stances, he says the need to stand firm predates the pandemic. “We had a Board of Education that had really developed a unilateral way of dealing with teachers and parents ... a series of mayors, Daley, Rahm, Lightfoot, who weren’t interested in bargaining or negotiating with us at all. It was their way or the highway. Yeah, there have been some conflicts for contracts, (but) those contracts have really set a bar and moved new resources into our schools ... and if it was difficult for those changes to sink through to the people on the other side of the table, I don’t apologize for it.”
Sharkey also reflected on the loss of former CTU president Karen Lewis, who died a year ago this month.
“She’s been on my mind a lot,” Sharkey said. “(She was) fearless, willing to lift up the voice of the voiceless, someone who stood for Black Chicago, who stood against racism in our schools, who stood for a vision of public education. I think if our community stays strong and our organizing stays strong, then her legacy will be assured going into the future.”