Updated Friday, Aug. 23, 2018
Karen Lewis — the woman whose tell-it-like-it-is style catapulted the Chicago Teachers Union into prominence both in Chicago and nationally — is officially retiring at the end of the month, years after a 2014 brain cancer diagnosis led her to a less active role.
Now, her union must chart its future without Lewis’ powerful voice — and it comes at an especially challenging time. The union faces continued membership losses as well as financial difficulties. And the year ahead holds a mayoral election, a union leadership election, and contract negotiations.
Lewis and her leadership team became a force by taking on broader social justice issues affecting students, schools, and their members. Since their election in 2010, they have fought for strong, equitable public schools, peaceful neighborhoods, and affordable housing. The CTU’s current leadership says these battles are still of the utmost importance, but they also plan to focus squarely on bread and butter union issues.
Contract talks coming
CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey pinpoints the upcoming contract talks as a rallying point for members. The contract doesn’t expire until the end of June, but Sharkey said the union will insist that the school district and Mayor Rahm Emanuel put some serious proposals on the table in the coming months — well before the February mayoral election.
The last contract also ended just after a mayoral election, and negotiators for the school district refused to get into the meat of talks until after Emanuel was re-elected. It took another year and a half to get a deal.
“If that is going to happen, there are going to be picket signs in the city of Chicago,” Sharkey said. “And it is not going to be an acceptable answer to say, ‘Let me wait to get my power base lined up.’ Part of what voters need to answer is whether or not this guy is going to put some funding into the public schools.”
Sharkey said the union will focus on winning better pay for teachers. “Raises have been anemic,” he said.
Past contract negotiations have been about wages and benefits, but the union under Lewis and Sharkey also has emphasized broader issues.
Their caucus, called CORE, believes the teachers union should lead in the battle against the privatization of public education. One of the big wins in the last contract is a moratorium on expanding the capacity of charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. CTU also fought for more mental health staff in the schools, for greater funding, and against private financial institutions making money off the school district.
Emphasizing wages and benefits, as well as firing up members around contract negotiations, could be a strategic move for a union coming under pressure from all sides.
Internal and external struggles
At the moment, there’s an internal struggle in the union about how and when to replace Lewis. Also, Lewis and Sharkey’s leadership team, which faced so little opposition three years ago they didn’t hold an election, looks like it will face a challenge this spring when their term expires.
A group called Members First is organizing to run against the CORE slate. Members First leaders declined a request for an interview.
But posts on their Facebook page show they want the union focused on traditional union issues such as wages and benefits.
Members First also is hammering the union leadership for what they see as financial mismanagement. They say the CTU is running a deficit both at the union and at the foundation it runs. They are also concerned about how the CTU’s political action committees are being run.
The union, a private organization, does not share its budget. But the most recent tax filings from 2016 show the union was running a $1 million deficit and the foundation about a $2 million deficit.
To erase a projected deficit this year, the union says it plans to employ about 10 fewer staff with some people going back to the classroom or retiring. Four people were laid off, according to the union. Drew Heiserman, an active member of the union and CORE, said the union realized long ago that it needed to shrink its staff to balance the budget.
“We finally managed to figure out how we want to go about it, and it is a little tough,” he said.
The union’s money problems are due in part to a continued loss of membership. Enrollment in the school district has been steadily dropping and therefore less staff is needed.
But CTU Political Director Stacey Davis Gates, who wouldn’t share specifics of the budget problems, pointed to a June U.S. Supreme Court decision as the main source of the union’s financial difficulties. In Janus v. AFSCME, the Supreme Court ruled that workers do not have to pay into unions, even if the union bargains on their behalf.
About 300 staff who weren’t union members last year, but were still required to pay about $1,000 annually, now do not have to pay anything to CTU. Those numbers could grow in coming years.
Davis Gates believes the CTU’s activism makes it less vulnerable to being undermined by the decision. She said the CTU is accustomed to being under attack.
But she admits it will hurt the union’s bank account.
“There will be a readjustment and a transition period,” Davis Gates said. “Post-Janus America has provided us with an opportunity to review and reorganize our space in a way that we will be able to best serve our members and to be able to provide them with the best services going forward.”
Symbolism of new CTU headquarters
Another weight on the CTU’s budget comes from its move from a downtown headquarters to a new building on the Near West Side.
The union couldn’t get out of the lease for its downtown office space, and unable to find someone to sublet, continues to pay rent. It also pays rent to the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, which owns the Near West Side building.
Some frustrated members say the headquarters symbolizes the current leadership’s misplaced priorities.
Sharkey and Gates, however, are quick to defend the new space, a blocklong building in an industrial park. Inside, it looks like a massive loft, with exposed brick and concrete posts.
Sharkey notes it costs $40 to park downtown and that parking at the new space is free. Also, he said the union couldn’t host all its union delegates in the downtown location.
“In the first year this building was open, we did 545 events,” Sharkey said. “I am talking about things that are as formal as house of delegate meetings. But also groups and members would organize an informal film showing. [There are] professional development classes. We have allies of ours talking about things they think are important to schools. It has been a real nexus in the neighborhood for a lot of positive forces to come together, and we see this building as a nexus for those forces in the city.”
Gates added: “This space is building community not just with our union but with our partners, with the grassroots, with our parents.”
This summer, for example, hundreds of teachers used the building for training on an “anti-racist” curriculum.
Davis Gates and Sharkey note that the building has been humming all summer long with teachers, getting extra training and organizing. In addition, members and students are in workshops connected with progressive community groups learning about what issues are important to them.
They say it shows there are many members out there who believe the CTU needs to be part of the conversation about how to make the city a better place to live for students and their families.
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.
This story was updated to clarify how the U.S. Supreme Court Janus decision affects the CTU.