Mar 27, 2023 - Politics

Chicago Teachers Union's power put to test in mayoral race

Sherry Cameron, from left, Lance Anderson, H. Lee Cook and Patricia Roberson show their support for Chicago mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters in January. Photo: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson has been fending off criticism about his association with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Why it matters: Chicagoans have strong feelings on both sides about the teachers union, which represents 25,000-plus education workers.

  • CTU-backed candidates have done well in recent elections, including the new movement of influential Democratic Socialist candidates on City Council.
  • But two recent polls show that the approval ratings of the powerful union are dropping among voters.

Driving the news: Comments about Johnson, a former teacher, being "too close" to CTU were referenced in Arne Duncan's endorsement of Paul Vallas last week. Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education and CPS chief, famously sparred with the union while he ran Chicago schools from 2001-2008.

Be smart: The two candidates have disparate views on how to run CPS.

Yes, but: For many, the issues in this election are not about school policy, but about the union itself.

  • After three work stoppages in the last five years, CTU has become a lightning rod for criticism, including questions about its support of a progressive political agenda outside the classroom.

By the numbers: CTU has already poured over $2 million into Johnson's campaign, and the union rank and file voted this month to pay more, about $8 a member per month, until June.

Zoom in: Johnson's past gig as a teacher isn't his only relationship with the powerful union. The West Side county commissioner has been a CTU organizer and lobbyist since 2013.

  • Johnson has argued that his close relationship with the union will help in negotiations, especially when delivering hard news.

What they're saying: Vallas' campaign has sought to paint Johnson as "a wholly owned subsidiary" of CTU, while touting Vallas' record of never having any labor strife while he ran CPS in the mid-1990s.

The other side: CTU points out that under Vallas' leadership, CPS began the controversial practice of designating underperforming schools as "turnaround schools." Teachers were fired at will — and made to reapply — in an effort to overhaul the system.

  • CTU says the chaos this caused at mostly Black and brown schools not only resulted in the explosion of charter schools, but also laid the groundwork for then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel's infamous closing of 50 schools, 10 years ago this month.

Context: Shortly after Vallas left CPS, the Board of Education moved to continue the work of privatizing schools and expanding selective enrollment schools. A WBEZ investigation found that since 2002, over 200 public schools have been either closed or reorganized.

  • A loud voice emerged to rally teachers against the city's moves: Karen Lewis. The famed CTU leader was elected union president in 2010, and the group's more progressive wing has held power since.
  • CTU president Stacy Davis-Gates joined the union as an organizer under Lewis.

The intrigue: This complicated public school history led University of Illinois labor historian Frank Bruno to tell Chalkbeat Chicago that in some ways, Vallas "helped to create the conditions that made Brandon Johnson inevitable."

What's ahead: The next mayor will negotiate a new teachers contract with CTU in 2024.


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