Chicago teachers and support staff on Friday are the only ones allowed to vote in a city election, but the results – deciding the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union for the next several years – will resonate citywide.
The CTU has become a dominant force in Chicago, and even on the national labor scene, in the past dozen years, since the time that Karen Lewis’ Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) slate came to power.
CORE’s now led by President Jesse Sharkey, who’s stepping down to return to the classroom.
Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is running for the top job, but is facing competition from two fronts: the Members First and REAL Caucus slates, both of which accuse the current bastion for a lack of transparency in allocating political action committee funds to candidates for state and local races and of devaluing members.
Davis Gates said CTU operates in a democratic fashion, and has more involvement from members now than ever before.
Going forward, she said priorities include improving curriculum, bringing resources like music and quality sports programs to all schools, and eliminating a CPS budget model that spends per pupil.
“The students who need resources the most are deprioritized with student-based budgeting, so we have to ameliorate student-based budgeting, which forces school communities to have oversized classrooms. We have to make our school day better for all of our students, thereby making it better for the people who do the work in the schools,” Davis Gates said. “And then we have to fight for revenue. Revenue that reflects the needs to make the school day better. And finally, our school communities have to be safe and anti-racist and our union and our members are going to have to be leaders in that.”
CTU has gone on strike or had contract disputes multiple times since CORE took the helm, to the consternation of some CPS parents and certainly to the political dismay of Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot.
The result, CORE leaders said, are contracts with positive impacts for students and members alike.
The 2019 bargaining agreement guarantees nurses and counselors in schools.
The slate’s candidate for financial secretary, Maria Moreno, said as a speech pathologist and bilingual teacher, contracts that secure bilingual education are particularly meaningful to her.
“It’s part of my culture, it’s part of who I am the little kids that I service. That means a lot, right. And there’s also language on sanctuary, for our members to organize in their buildings to keep ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) out of the buildings and to protect our students,” Moreno said. “And to me, also very important, is that we do fight for Black Lives Matter. We fight so that our students are not targeted because of the colors of skin. And that to me matters. And I don’t think that the other two groups that are running will fight and make sure that we continue to expand these.”
The REAL Caucus is made mostly of disaffected CORE members, who said that they’re not naïve to how things work and that they will be willing to fight.
“We’re not trying to call the mayor relentlessly stupid like CORE has, but at the same turn, we know that we have to be prepared to fight for the best contract that we can get. So we’re going to be civil but that is not going to be the key to us getting better working conditions,” said REAL’s candidate for vice president, Joseph “Joey” McDermott.
McDermott said after CTU’s most recent walkout in January, over COVID-19 protections in schools, years of discontent with current leadership boiled over.
Teachers will lose nearly a week’s pay for the days of school they refused to teach in school buildings.
“Leading up to the January action, there had been an attitude by our leadership of disrespect and demeaning of members who had different perspectives. That created conditions where we were weakened, our united was weakened, going into that January action,” McDermott said. “Add to that that our leadership made statements along the lines of ‘you’re going to be working, you’ll still get paid, and at most what they can is take away two days’ pay. So the messaging that we received from our leadership was misleading, erroneous and demoralizing.”
The REAL Caucus said it shares strong social and racial justice goals but also wants greater financial transparency. Its officer candidates have committed to a six-year (two-term) limit and said they will not take any outside stipend, because they say membership is best served by leaders who know what’s happening in schools.
“Teaching is the most important thing that you can do and without our teachers in our classrooms, we don’t have a union. And sometimes I think current leadership forgets that,” said REAL caucus candidate Alison Eichhorn.
The Members First caucus is not new, but its leaders hope this election will see it reach greater success, boosted by members frustrated by CTU’s direction.
Members First’s candidate for president, Mary Esposito-Usterbowski, said priorities are better pay, and creating a fund to ensure members would get some money if they had to strike.
“(The strike fund) would ensure that the Chicago Public Schools would be aware that the teachers aren’t going to be as financially impacted by the strike, so it gives us a little bit of leverage at the table to say, hey, teachers aren’t going to be as significantly impacted. Let’s get this solved,” she said.
Esposito-Usterbowski said another goal is to eliminate the requirement teachers reside in Chicago city limits, something she said Members First learned from members they want.
“Every high school doesn’t have the same problems. Every elementary school doesn’t have the same problems. So we’re going to go out and engage with each and every member at each school to figure out what we can do to better help them,” Esposito-Usterbowski said. “We want to work on behalf of members. We really do. We believe that the members’ needs need to be apriority within this union, and at the present they’re not.”
She said if the union isn’t delivering for its members – then its students aren’t getting the best from their teachers.
The CTU election again, is Friday. Ballots will be counted by a third party. The results hold for the next three years, including leading up to contract negotiations.
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