The leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union have been reelected in the union’s most hotly contested race since their group came to power in 2010, avoiding a runoff and cementing their role atop one of the city’s most influential organizations.
The outright win in a three-caucus race leaves the union in the hands of leaders who have fought for social justice inside and outside classrooms — and sparked counterparts to do the same nationwide — while creating a constant power struggle against the mayor’s office and Chicago Public Schools leadership. They have led the CTU on two strikes and several pandemic standoffs during their 12 year tenure.
Stacy Davis Gates, the incumbent vice president, led CORE’s slate and will take over as president with her running mate Jackson Potter for a three-year term beginning July 1. Current President Jesse Sharkey decided to step down and return to the classroom.
In a letter to members sharing the results from the vote in schools on Friday, posted Saturday morning, Sharkey urged solidarity and healing.
“That solidarity, and your willingness to make real sacrifices for your students and your colleagues, has won us real gains at the bargaining table, in the legislature, and in the goodwill and support of the people who love and entrust us with their children,” Sharkey wrote. “Unity, and our commitment to the greater good will carry us forward, together.”
The incumbent leadership group, part of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, also known as CORE, won 56% of the votes. Members First, which called for the union to focus solely on basic working conditions for teachers, received 27%. The other challenger, the Respect, Educate, Advocate and Lead caucus, or REAL, got 17%. CTU did not provide information on how many votes were counted. REAL is an upstart group of disgruntled CORE members who felt top officials grew increasingly disconnected from classroom teachers’ working conditions.
CORE’s victory serves as vindication of sorts for the union’s leadership, which was taken to task by the two other caucuses for its handling of the pandemic, particularly the collective action this past January in which five school days were canceled and teachers weren’t paid for refusing to report for in-person work. The opposing caucuses said it was poorly planned and didn’t result in any gains for the union’s 25,000 members.
The election results will also be seen as a defeat for Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has had a contentious relationship with the union and especially Davis Gates.
But the win was not overwhelming and this election represents the first seriously contested election in over a decade — the Members First caucus first challenged the current leadership in 2019, but only won about a third of the vote.
The election came at a pivotal moment for education in Chicago, with schools still grappling with the effects of the pandemic, a mayoral election looming and the city’s first school board elections nearing. Ten of the 21 members of the new board will be elected in late 2024, the same year the union’s contract expires. That agreement was forged after an 11-day 2019 strike.
Even as the election comes to a close, lawsuits over it will continue. The CTU has filed two lawsuits over alleged outside interference in support of Members First, one against mayoral ally Lisa Fabes-Schneider and the other against an educational advocacy organization called Educators for Excellence. Meanwhile, Members First sued CTU over the extension of a deadline to declare candidacy.
Members First campaigned on the feeling teachers and staff were no longer willing to stand up for issues not directly related to working conditions, like advocating for affordable housing in the city. Leaders said their main goal was “to get teachers everything that they need” for classroom teaching.
The other challenger slate was a newly formed group of frustrated former CORE members who generally hold the same values as their old colleagues but felt the current leaders had become too interested in holding power and distant from educators’ day-to-day struggles.
REAL leaders said they hoped their campaign would at least push the union’s leaders to re-connect with teachers and staff on the ground and respond to their needs.
Sharkey said he looks “back in awe at what our unity and solidarity has achieved” in his decade-plus in union office.
“And now — perhaps more than at any point in the past 12 years that I have served in leadership — it is time for us to come together for healing, and the solidarity that anchors our strength,” he said.
The CTU leadership team also includes Maria Moreno as financial secretary and Christel Williams-Hayes as recording secretary.
Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.