Chicago Teachers Union election May 20 could affect frequency of strikes

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
May 17, 2022

Chicago Teachers Union election May 20 could affect frequency of strikes

CTU has walked out on students three times in three school years. The outcome of its upcoming leadership election pits the status quo against potential change – and could alter the political trajectory of the nation’s most militant teachers union.

On May 20 members of the Chicago Teachers Union have the opportunity to elect new leadership for a three-year term. What members decide could determine the course of the union – and how often Chicago students are out of class for strikes – for years to come.

One slate of candidates is promising change for teachers and students within the district.

Members First is a caucus within CTU that pledges to be different than current CTU leadership, which the caucus claims is “far more focused on advancing their own political careers than delivering” for teachers.

The CTU’s militant actions in recent years are at the forefront of the election. The election comes on the heels of three work stoppages in just three school years, with four-term president Jessie Sharkey at the helm. While Sharkey is not running again, current CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is running to take his place on behalf of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE).

But the Members First caucus believes CTU’s reputation under the leadership of Sharkey and Gates has been “greatly tarnished”

“The current leadership of the CTU sees work stoppages and strikes as the first step, and not the last one,” its website states.

A January 2022 walkout resulted in over 330,000 schoolchildren missing five days of school. Parents were notified of the walkout after 11 p.m. on a school night, leaving them just hours to develop a back-up plan – as most folks were asleep – after the union decided not to show up.

That shut-down followed canceled classes in January 2021, when CTU refused to return to school for in-person learning. Before that there was the 2019 strike, which resulted in 11 days of missed school. An illegal strike in 2016 cost students another day of school. And a strike in 2012 left kids out of school for seven days of instruction.

In short, strikes have been CTU’s go-to “bargaining” tool for years. The union even takes credit for triggering multiple teachers’ union strikes around the nation in the past decade.

Both teachers and parents are tired of the CTU’s ploys.

When CTU was preparing to walk out on students in 2019, teacher and CTU member Karen Moody told the Chicago Tribune, “CTU has strayed from the mission I thought I was funding: supporting teachers.”

“Before leading teachers out of our classrooms to strike, we need stronger leadership in our workplace and help getting our own house in order,” she said.

Chicago Public Schools parent Sarah Sachen has seen her kids struggle in the wake of repeated school closures caused by the union: “When the union calls a strike, it impacts families financially, educationally, socially.”

“CTU wants to keep pushing and striking for demands not even related to education…. Learning should not be impeded or stopped for the union’s political games,” Sachen said.

The Members First caucus also criticizes the current leadership’s “out of control donations to political races and other unchecked spending” that has eliminated CTU’s reserves. CTU has spent over $2.5 million on political activities and lobbying in the past three years, according to reports the union filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. Its parent union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, likewise has a history of heavy political spending.

The caucus is promising to make all transactions by CTU, its political action committees and the CTU Foundation available to members if its candidates are elected.

A third caucus – Respect, Educate, Advocate and Lead (REAL) – is also running a slate of candidates, but REAL does not criticize CTU’s repeated strikes in its platform.

Illinois is an outlier when it comes to teacher union strikes. Teacher strikes are illegal in eight of the 10 largest school districts in the nation, with Chicago being one of the two districts where strikes are allowed.

None of Illinois’ neighbor states allow teacher strikes, a recognition that children’s educations should not be reduced to a bargaining chip.

Whatever happens on May 20, strikes will still be legal in Illinois. And if voters approve Amendment 1 in November, it will permanently cement in the Illinois Constitution the rights of teachers unions to walk out on students.

But for now CTU members have a choice: going with the status quo – with strikes as the likely go-to union strategy – or making a change that could mean students spend less time out of school.

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