Chicago Teachers Union: from classroom to City Council?

Sue Sadlowski Garza

Sue Sadlowski Garza, a counselor at Jane Addams Elementary School, was one of three CPS educators endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union on Nov. 5. The CTU plans to endorse more candidates next month. [Photo by Grace Donnelly]

In South Chicago, an elementary school counselor tells her neighbors that City Hall needs to begin paying attention to the working class. In Avondale, a social studies teacher says an elected school board and a higher minimum wage are essential to improving neighborhoods. In Austin, a special education teacher says she doesn’t want to work at another school that gets turned around or closed.

These Chicago Public Schools educators are each running for aldermanic seats, pushing a progressive agenda with the ambitious goal of unseating incumbents in the February 2015 elections. Though Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is no longer considering a run against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel, at least eight CTU members have entered the political fray.

You could call it the political year of the teachers. 

The CTU House of Delegates, which will endorse aldermanic candidates in stages, voted on Nov. 5 to endorse Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia for mayor, along with three of the teacher candidates:  Sue Sadlowski Garza, a counselor at Jane Addams Elementary School, running in the 10th Ward, which includes South Chicago; Tim Meegan, a social studies teacher at Roosevelt High School, running in the 33rd Ward on the North Side; and Jenner Elementary teacher Tara Stamps, running in the 37th Ward.

More endorsements will come next month.

Though it has historically been difficult to unseat sitting aldermen—especially those who aligned themselves with City Hall and, in turn, received mayoral backing—the candidates hope that widespread dissatisfaction with Emanuel and his City Council allies will set the stage for grassroots change next February.

“Everything I’ve done up until now has been instrumental in getting me ready for this moment,” says Sadlowski Garza. “I was really inspired to run by Karen Lewis’ [potential] bid … but had been poked and prodded to do this for a while. I think we really have the potential to change the entire political landscape of the city.”

Candidates have until Nov. 24 to gather signatures and file nominating petitions to run. 

On a personal level, Sadlowski Garza and other candidates say events such as the historic 2012 teachers’ strike (the first in Chicago in more than two decades) and the protests over last year’s massive school closures convinced them that they won’t see the changes they want in schools and neighborhoods unless the political system is radically transformed.

On a broader level, the decision by CTU members to run for public office speaks to the union’s wading more deeply into electoral politics. The shift started in 2010, when the progressive Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was first elected into the union’s leadership. The new CTU prides itself on being a “social movement” union concerned with social equity and economic justice, not just the bread-and-butter issues that impact members in schools. 

As such, the union and its progressive allies in labor and community organizations consider politics as critical to advance that mission. It’s a strategy that is also playing out on a national level, as progressive unions work to elect pro-labor candidates.

“This is not about one race,” Lewis herself reminded supporters in September. “It’s about building a movement so that our city can be what it’s supposed to be—a city that responds to every single person, a city that responds to every single neighborhood.”  

From activism to campaigning

In a way, it’s not surprising that Sadlowski Garza is running for office. She grew up in a radical union home in South Chicago, the same working-class neighborhood where she still lives and works. Her father, Ed Sadlowski, was a steelworker and local union leader who nearly won the presidency of the national United Steelworkers in the 1970s.

“As a child, I spent a lot of days getting woken up at 6 in the morning, dressing in the dark to go to gates at the mill to hand out pamphlets,” says Sadlowski Garza. “I was taught that when you see a picket line, you raise your fist and beat your horn—and then you go to the doughnut shop and bring the guys doughnuts.”

Unionism might be in her blood. But Sadlowski Garza, who worked as a “lunch lady” and teaching assistant before becoming a counselor, says her personal awakening didn’t come until the 2012 strike. There’s a telling photo of Garza from one of the last days of the strike: Pulling out of a parking lot in her silver 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis, which is covered in union signs, Garza is waving her fist out of the car window.

Across town, in the Austin neighborhood on the city’s impoverished West Side, Tammie Vinson says the strike generated a welcome uptick in activism among teachers. That summer, Vinson and other black teachers [who have been hardest hit by layoffs stemming from closings] revitalized a fledgling Black Caucus within the union. 

“The CTU has been like a beacon of hope,” Vinson says. 

Vinson, a special education teacher running in the 28th Ward, had been organizing against so-called “school actions” (turnarounds, in which the entire staff has to reapply for their jobs, and closures) since 2008. That year, the school where Vinson worked, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, was turned around. Vinson lost her job and moved on to Emmet Elementary. Emmet closed last year.

“With both schools, we were actively fighting, mobilizing the parents, going to the board, strategizing for ways to keep it opened,” says Vinson, who now teaches at Oscar DePriest Elementary.

Stamps, who is running in the neighboring 37th Ward, is the daughter of a longtime Chicago housing and civil rights activist, Marion Nzinga Stamps. “I was kind of born into revolution and activism. This is what I inherited,” Stamps said at a forum on social justice activism and violence in September. More endorsements will come next month.

And nearby, in the 29th Ward, community activist and parent Zerlina Smith, is running for alderman too. Smith was an active parent leader in last spring’s boycott of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, where her daughter attends preschool. She says CTU staffer Jackson Potter, who is widely considered the union’s de facto political strategist, became her mentor.

Other teacher candidates are Dianne Daleiden, a math teacher at North River Elementary School, running in the 40th Ward on the North Side; Guadalupe Rivera, a bilingual teacher at Morrill Elementary School, running in the 16th Ward on the Southwest Side; Ed Hershey, a science teacher at Lindblom Math & Science Academy; and Marcia Brown-Williams, a recently retired teacher running in the 9th Ward on the Far South Side.

Like the other teacher candidates, Brown-Williams says schools aren’t the only issue on her agenda. She’s concerned about bringing economic development to her neighborhood, reducing crime and adding affordable housing for families. The 9th Ward includes parts of Altgeld Gardens and Roseland, two communities that are in dire need of an economic boost.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big proponent of education,” says Brown-Williams, who resigned from her job in June because of what she considered a “bullying” atmosphere against teachers at her school. “But if you have economic growth in your neighborhood, then you have better schools, more parent involvement, and more businesses involved.”

Building a movement

Though some of the candidates went through the union’s summer organizing program, union leaders say there was never a concerted effort to get educators to run for office.

“But there was a political conclusion that was drawn going into the school closings fight,” reflects CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey. “People saw their aldermen taking cowardly positions and just going with the person in power as opposed to supporting the teachers.”

Conversations about forming an independent political organization in Chicago and planning what its agenda would be began during CORE’s annual convention last year.

“We were asking ourselves, do we step out and form an independent political movement or do we work with the Democratic Party?” remembers Meegan, who is running in a ward that includes Avondale and Albany Park. “I’ve mostly voted Democrat my whole life but I’m no longer interested in supporting the party […]. Nobody is representing the working class anymore.”

What was born out of those and other discussions is United Working Families, an independent political organization made up of the CTU, SEIU Healthcare Illinois and the community groups Grassroots Illinois Action and Action Now. Although they share similar names and visions, the group isn’t officially connected to the Working Families Party in New York and New Jersey, which helped progressive Democrat Bill de Blasio win last year’s mayoral race in New York City.

United Working Families’ mission is to support progressive candidates in the 2015 municipal race who agree to champion an elected school board and a $15 minimum wage as part of their campaign platform. (Emanuel is opposed to an elected school board, but supports a $13 minimum wage to be implemented gradually over the next few years.) 

Kristen Crowell, the group’s executive director, says United Working Families will likely make early endorsements for the city’s incumbent progressive aldermen. It will also train and vet the nearly three dozen progressive candidates before making endorsement decisions. With those endorsements, of course, will come financial backing.

Crowell notes that United Working Families will have a long-term strategy that goes beyond a single election cycle. That means continuing to hold accountable—and support—any progressive candidates who win their races. Plus, she adds, “We need to shift the culture of how we work together after the elections.”

Crowell is known in progressive circles for her role in helping to put together organized labor’s recall effort against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose policies ended most collective bargaining rights for public sector employees. A year ago, Crowell moved to Chicago from Wisconsin, in part to get away from what she describes as a depressing political atmosphere that formed after the recall failed.  

Crowell was attracted to the movement she saw building in Chicago since the CTU strike. “There’s hope here,” she says. “The fight is alive and well.”

In the coming weeks, United Working Families will form a political action committee that can start serious fundraising. Crowell says she expects the PAC will be able to easily collect donations from organized labor and “lots of progressive small donors” from across the country. 

Chicago’s organized labor

It’s not unheard of for union members or labor leaders to run for political office. Among the aldermanic candidates in the 11th Ward, for example, is John Tominello, who spent more than a decade working to unionize state court reporters. (“It’s not just Rahm,” he says. “It’s the City Council. They’re anti-union.”) And a handful of former local teachers’ union presidents have been elected to the state legislatures in Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin.

But those who study organized labor and politics say that what’s happening with the CTU and the upcoming elections is part of a larger national trend. In locales as diverse as Vermont; Minneapolis; New Haven, Conn.; and Jackson, Miss., among other places, progressive unions have encouraged their members to run for office to try to unseat incumbent Democrats who don’t value labor concerns. 

“It reflects the disenchantment with [President Barack] Obama, six years of lowered expectations and disappointments” in the Democratic Party, says Steve Early, an author and former union organizer who studies labor movements. “People are trying to intervene at the local level, where mobilized union members and local issues can energize voters and you can overcome the disadvantage of not being able to spend as much on politics.”

In Chicago, unions have historically held an important role in fundraising and getting out the vote for candidates who were friendly to organized labor. With few exceptions, that meant joining the Democratic Party coalition and supporting that party’s candidates. Trades unions were especially loyal to City Hall because of the benefits of prevailing wages and yearlong work; in addition, unions tended to support the incumbent politicians who controlled the city’s purse strings.

Things started to change after 2006, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley exercised his first and only veto on the so-called “big box” ordinance. Unions—and especially the more liberal ones such as SEIU and AFSCME locals—wanted stores such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot to increase wages and provide healthcare benefits to workers.

Disenchanted with Daley, many of these same unions poured millions of dollars into the following year’s aldermanic races and gained seats for a handful of progressive aldermanic candidates– including now-mayoral candidate Bob Fioretti—over incumbents who had Daley’s backing.

The trend has accelerated since Emanuel’s election in 2011 as “labor unions have become disaffected with City Hall, thinking that it doesn’t represent them,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago and former city alderman.

Still, organized labor is divided. The city’s trade unions and the Teamsters have already given the mayor and his PAC hundreds of thousands of dollars—even though the deadline for candidates to file isn’t until Nov. 24.  It’s too early to tell who many of the other unions will support.

Next for CTU

In September, the CTU’s House of Delegates voted to allow union staff to provide some technical help to members who are considering electoral runs. The resolution notes that, as a general rule, CTU won’t formally endorse candidates until they’ve secured a place on the ballot—and any early help doesn’t constitute an endorsement.

“Candidates know an endorsement from the CTU means something,” says the union’s political director, Stacy Davis Gates.

To get a sense of the work CTU might do for mayoral or aldermanic candidates, it’s helpful to look at two of last spring’s state legislative primary races in which the union campaigned hard for two progressive candidates with strong education platforms: Will Guzzardi, a journalist-turned-organizer, who won his race in the 39th District, which includes Logan Square and Belmont-Cragin; and community organizer Jhatayn “Jay” Travis, who lost hers for the 26th District, which snakes down from Streeterville to South Chicago.

The teachers union poured money into both campaigns, while also encouraging members to write their own checks, help out at phone banks, and knock on doors for the candidates, Davis Gates says.

“To be perfectly honest, this past spring was the most intense amount of work we’ve done for an electoral cycle before. It was intense, intentional, and focused,” she says. The upcoming electoral work promises to be more intense.

Meanwhile, the teacher candidates are putting in long hours after school and on weekends to gather the signatures they need to qualify as candidates.  It’s a lot of work, admits Daleiden, but people are getting the message.

Daleiden tells voters she wants to fight the privatization of public schools and “stop corporations from siphoning public money from public assets.”

 “I’m not out there knocking on doors to save my job in a public school,” she says. “I’m knocking on doors because I think children deserve quality schools and we all need to stand up to this as community members.”

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