Fresh off a bitter fight with Chicago Public Schools over COVID-19 safety that led to the cancellation of four days of classes, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union announced Wednesday that he will not run for reelection in May.
Jesse Sharkey said he will return to teaching. In 2010, Sharkey left his social studies classroom at Senn High School to take over the union with Karen Lewis, who went on to become president. Together, they are credited with not just revitalizing the Chicago Teachers Union, but spurring activism among unions across the country.
They insisted the teachers union needed to push for more than just salaries, but also against privatization of public education and for social justice issues that impacted members and the families they served.
Members of Sharkey’s caucus will officially decide who to slate in Sharkey’s absence for the union election on May 20. But Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is expected to step into the top spot.
“They gave us our dignity back,” Davis Gates said of Lewis and Sharkey, “They were really clear about empowering us as residents of the city, as teachers in the classroom … our backs straightened. Our shoulders were a little higher.”
Sharkey said he is comfortable stepping away because he believes Davis Gates will continue that legacy. Sharkey and Davis Gates declined to say who they want to step in as a vice presidential candidate for their caucus.
He called Davis Gates the union’s most effective spokesperson and its best strategist.
But she’s also earned the particular ire of Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has at times refused to let Davis Gates into meetings, choosing instead to meet with Sharkey. And Davis Gates most recently said Lightfoot was “unfit to be mayor.”
Given the history, if Davis Gates takes over the union, this could lead to a highly contentious year, especially as Lightfoot faces her own reelection. But Davis Gates said it should not be seen as fighting for fighting sake.
“This is not a petty catfight and I am not a child in middle school,” she said Wednesday. “There are very sharp disagreements over the direction of our school district and over the protection of the people who are in our school communities, and the decisions that are being made about children during a pandemic.”
Though Sharkey and Davis Gates have been consistently critical of the mayor, they were particularly harsh as the mayor repeatedly rebuffed some of the union’s major demands in the latest standoff over COVID-19 safety. Sharkey called the mayor “relentlessly stupid.”
A group running an alternate slate of candidates in the union election have seized on the latest standoff with the school district and the union. They hold Sharkey and Davis Gates responsible for the four days of lost pay during the shutdown, and say the end result was an inadequate safety agreement. Sharkey and Davis Gates emphasize that they acted at the direction of members, who overwhelmingly voted to work remotely rather than in-person, prompting CPS to shut down the schools. They also accuse the mayor of failing to provide basic safety measures.
But by the end of standoff, Sharkey and Davis Gates seemed exhausted and exasperated. Still, Sharkey said that’s not why he is stepping away. He had wanted to do it for several months, but said he held off announcing his decision so it would not be a distraction during the omicron surge and negotiations.
Sharkey said being president of the teachers union has been a “very difficult job.”
“It is a job that has taken all my waking energy,” he said. “Most nights, it’s the last thing I think about before I fall asleep and first thing I think about when I wake up.”
Sharkey said returning to teaching is something he and his caucus believes in. One of the founders of the caucus made the same move a few years ago.
“I never intended to sort of retire from the presidency of the CTU,” Sharkey said. “The way we view this work is that there’s a continuum of leadership, where people start as activists in the classroom, become rank and file leaders, move into office and then eventually president. That vision only sustains itself as people who are at the top move out.”
Sharkey first served as vice president under Karen Lewis and then took the baton when she was too sick to continue leading. He officially became president in 2018. Lewis died last year.
On Wednesday, Sharkey said he was proud of many accomplishments, including the 2019 teachers contract, which eventually will give every school a social worker and a nurse; organizing charter school teachers; the repeal of a law that limits union bargaining rights; and a bill that will lead to an elected school board.
He also said not every decision he made was right and they didn’t win every battle.
“There were the school closings in 2013. We lost Karen,” he said. “We’ve been through a lot. The pandemic. We’ve been through this current mayor. Through all those things our people have gained experience.”
Davis Gates said she was sad and emotional about Sharkey’s decision. She said she depends on Sharkey to check her ideas.
Davis Gates seized the moment to outline some of the many things that she would want to work on as president. She said she wants to fight for better child care for all women, including her members, 80% of whom are women. She also wants to make sure schools are addressing trauma and providing quality sports programs and arts education.
“We can’t just have a handful of high schools in the city that give students what they need,” she said.