Chicago Teachers Union sets a radical example for nation’s teachers unions

Chicago Teachers Union sets a radical example for nation’s teachers unions

The Chicago Teachers Union prides itself as a leader in “bargaining for the common good” – unionspeak for contract demands related to its political agenda rather than teachers’ wages and benefits. This year’s negotiations could reverberate across the nation.

Taxpayers far beyond Chicago should be wary as a new contract is negotiated with the Chicago Teachers Union – it is likely to impact demands and costs as other teachers unions negotiate.

CTU has a long history of going on strike, walking out on students five times in the past 12 years. Former CTU President Jesse Sharkey once said CTU is a “union that fights the boss. That was true for Daley, it’s true for Rahm, it’s true for Lightfoot. It’s going to be true for whoever’s mayor next.”

But with Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson heavily indebted to CTU for the massive funding the union gave his campaign as well as his allegiance to his former employer, will CTU once again be a union that “fights the boss” – or will Johnson be the boss the union doesn’t need to fight to get exactly what it demands?

And what will CTU’s actions mean for teachers unions across the nation?

CTU already influences other teachers unions

CTU’s rush to strike isn’t just a local concern. It reflects a national trend of teacher strikes gaining momentum as a standard negotiating tactic rather than a last resort, largely influenced by CTU’s actions.

CTU’s 2012 strike, its first since 1987, not only marked a pivotal moment for Chicago but also ignited a nationwide labor movement. There were only five major strikes in 2009, the fewest since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking them. CTU’s 2012 strike went against this trend, with CTU striking for the first time in 25 years. It subsequently inspired more than 20 strikes during the next decade in the education sector alone.

CTU’s 2012 strike exemplified a teachers union using its power to negotiate for “the common good,” fighting on issues that fell outside the realm of teacher compensation and normal teacher issues. Per the handbook for this strategy, bargaining for the common good involves using union contract negotiations to tackle issues such as racial justice, climate justice, immigration, housing and privatization.

At least some of the teacher strikes CTU inspired adopted this framework. In fact, CTU held town halls around the country after its 2012 strike to spread its ideology and strategy to other unions. This led to the Red for Ed movement, starting in West Virginia in 2018.

One of the key leaders of the West Virginia movement, Jay O’Neal, read multiple books about CTU’s 2012 strike and studied the Chicago union’s rank-and-file strategy. Teacher strikes were illegal in West Virginia, but this did not stop them from going on a statewide strike that lasted a month.

This spurred similar movements in states such as Oklahoma and Arizona, drawing direct inspiration from CTU’s strategies and success. One of the union organizers in Arizona, Rebecca Garelli, had participated in the 2012 Chicago strikes. She said her experience in Chicago inspired her to use tactics learned there to organize and carry out the strike in Arizona.

CTU’s tactics have also found their way into other teachers unions’ actions. In 2022, teachers in Minnesota asked for counselors and social workers at every school. In 2023, Oakland teachers demanded Black student reparations and housing.

What’s more, CTU has offered public support for the efforts of other unions, indicating strikes are still a tool CTU is willing to use. CTU offered support for Oakland teachers’ 2023 strike, tweeting: “CTU STANDS IN SOLIDARITY WITH OUR UNION SIBLINGS IN OAKLAND.” It offered similar support for teacher strikes in Newton, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.

This trend toward more frequent and politically charged teacher strikes, exemplified by CTU’s actions and influence, signals a significant shift in the education labor movement. From just 2021 to 2024, there were strikes in Massachusetts, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Oakland, Minneapolis and Seattle.

As negotiations loom in Chicago, the outcome will impact local education as well as future teacher union actions nationwide.

CTU expects Johnson to meet its demands

CTU is currently conducting a new experiment: pouring millions of dollars into a mayoral election to get one of its own elected, then making outrageous demands in subsequent negotiations, expecting to be paid back.

CTU handpicked Johnson, one of its former lobbyists, to run for office. It then gave his mayoral campaign at least $2.6 million, even using teachers’ dues without asking.

Most recently, CTU attempted to use the “Bring Chicago Home” real estate transfer tax referendum to further its housing agenda – namely, housing for Chicago teachers. The Chicago union poured at least $400,000 into the political campaign championing the ballot measure, which was Johnson’s top initiative. City leaders did not specify how the additional revenue from the real estate transfer tax increase would be used, but Johnson clarified that an ordinance would need to pass to determine that. Although voters rejected the tax hike, CTU plans to use its “bargaining for the common good” strategy to appropriate revenue to aid their housing agenda. One of its top demands in a leaked document was “financial assistance for CTU members to live & work in the city.”

CTU previously took its bargaining tactics nationwide, so the nation’s taxpayers should be watching Chicago this summer. What happens with CTU’s demands could once again incite other unions to follow, investing millions to get an employee elected in order to obtain billions in contract concessions.

And taxpayers know where those billions will come from.

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