On Oct. 25, 2019, the seventh day of the CTU and SEIU Local 73 strike, protesters gathered at Buckingham Fountain to march while union leadership continued negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools. Photographs by Sarah-Ji (Love + Struggle Photos).
Not long after Brandon Johnson won Chicago’s 2023 mayoral election, he came by the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization’s annual convention. Several hundred seniors, students, educators, and other members of the South Side community group were gathered at King College Prep High School to attend workshops, discuss next steps, and maintain their connection with a vital part of the network of community activists, trade unionists, antiracist organizers, and others who constitute — and identify as — the Chicago movement. The buzz of victory still hung in the air. Conversations with people you hadn’t seen in a while started with hugs or big smiles and a shake of the head. Our movement elected the mayor of Chicago. Can you believe it?
In his speech, Brandon made three points. First, he restated his commitment to the movement’s demands, including housing and education, which echo the community organization’s program. Second, he stressed the importance of Black and Latino unity — a timely and important intervention given the opposition to settling asylum seekers among some in Chicago’s Black community. And the third point, less explicit and more visceral, was to let the movement claim him for a minute. To tell the crowd with a wink and a relaxed grin, I know the TV cameras are on, but we all know I came out of this movement. I was a public school teacher and an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union. The folks he joined on a hunger strike in 2015 to save Dyett High School were sitting in the front row, and the organizers who had taken over school board meetings with him were standing just off to the side.
He told us not to let the rich and powerful divide us. He joked about how many terms Black people have for “cousin.” He was speaking to his people. Our movement elected the mayor of Chicago, y’all. Can you believe it?
The moment he was done speaking and turned to leave the stage, I was immediately reminded of the pressures on him — a Chicago Police Department security detail, an advance team, logistics, photographers, press liaisons, a crowd of media with cameras and microphones. It was a complete scrum, and it follows him virtually everywhere he goes in public. The end of his life as he had known it.
I first met Brandon in 2011 when he interviewed for an organizer job at the Chicago Teachers Union. I was the vice president, and he was a teacher at an elementary and middle school in the Cabrini-Green projects. CTU president Karen Lewis and our team of teachers in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) had just taken over the biggest local union in the city with the aim to turn the union into the kind of inspiring, socially aware, fighting organization that could transform the city’s schools while building an educational justice movement. For that we needed organizers, a job title that hadn’t existed at the CTU. Brandon was a perfect fit: politically engaged, earnest and open to people, and motivated to fight injustice.
A pastor’s kid from a family of 12 who, as he is fond of retelling, shared a single bathroom, Brandon possesses an easy good nature that can slip into the kind of facile I-can-be-anything-to-everyone style of a skilled politician. But his is not the story of a silver-tongued, charismatic young man who charts a meteoric rise up the political ladder — after all, Brandon chose a team that did not appear to be winning in 2011. In fact, we were getting the snot kicked out of us. The mayor at the time, Rahm Emanuel, came to Chicago with the clout of a DC insider (he had been President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff) and an aggressive plan to attack the teachers union and remake the schools in a corporate model. While Brandon was filling out his employment paperwork at the CTU, Mayor-Elect Emanuel was in the Capitol supporting legislation designed to strip away our collective bargaining rights and bar our ability to strike. Brandon’s trajectory from the front lines of the CTU’s struggles to the mayor’s office mirrors the CTU’s transformation from a relatively isolated and conservative union that politicians used as a punching bag to a social justice union bolstered by a burgeoning movement that was not afraid to demonstrate or strike and could help set an agenda for the entire city.
How would Brandon withstand the pressures of office? What does it mean for our movement to have one of our own in office? How will we win our demands for housing, education, and reforming the racist injustice system? How will we build our movement to take advantage of the new horizons opening with Brandon as mayor?
The organizers at that South Side event weren’t putting forward any easy or pat answers to those questions. Yet everyone, almost to a person, held to the political wisdom of an organizing tradition in Chicago that sees our most important power as flowing from our own ranks, not from high office. Few, if any, in Chicago’s activist community expect the city to meet all the demands a decade of popular campaigns had generated — the price for our public school program alone reaches into the billions of dollars, to say nothing of our demands around housing, jobs, restorative justice, and more. Other movement ideas — like diverting funding from the police to community services — contain political risks that could undo the mayor’s governing coalition. To the people at the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization convention, Brandon’s election reflected the importance of our grassroots work — a sign of our popular influence and successful organizing more than a naïve belief that electing a mayor overcomes all the financial and political obstacles to structural change.
I think the benefits of having elected an organizer as mayor fall along three lines, none of which has to do with Brandon simply delivering our political wish list to us like manna from heaven. First, the election raised expectations among working-class Chicagoans and people of color. Beyond the campaign promises alone (though those do provide a benchmark), a mayor who tells us, This is a rich city — there’s no reason it can’t provide for everybody, it helps us break out of a cynical and demoralized view that this economically and racially segregated city will never change. Second, with Brandon in office, space opens up for us to win people to our ideas. As the policy proposals about housing, policing, mental health, and more from Brandon’s transition report are debated and introduced as legislation, we will have an opportunity to train our activists on a new variety of political issues. Finally, all of this produces organizing opportunities and the ability to grow our unions, neighborhood organizations, and movements. If we run campaigns that produce compelling narratives, develop the thinking and ideas of our activists, and keep up the pressure through direct actions, then we can view the Johnson administration as a boon for our side.
Too often in our history we’ve seen reform-oriented politicians veer off course, make compromises with power, and then use their own credibility within the movement to tamp down dissent rather than encourage the activism that made their rise possible. We’ve also seen social movements lose their way and devolve into electoral vehicles that demobilize as soon as the campaigns end. These twin dangers can ultimately produce a defeatism and a backlash we’ve seen captured by the right. But Brandon isn’t just a politician who latched onto a social movement. He taught public school, organized co-workers, and led a militant union that was at the center of Chicago’s social movements. The activists and rank-and-file members of those movements have been part of a drama whose first, second, and third acts involved movement building, strikes, and mass protests.
If you look at the forces that are arrayed against Brandon — first during the campaign and carrying on now in the same unrelenting vein — one criticism stands out above all the others: his roots in the CTU. His election was described as Chicago choosing “one of CTU’s own,” describing him as “a former Chicago Public Schools teacher and paid CTU organizer” by ABC7, one of Chicago’s most watched TV news channels. Over and over again his opponent Paul Vallas, a former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), attacked Brandon as a leader in the CTU, trying to argue that Brandon could not serve all Chicagoans because he was affiliated with the union, as if being funded by a handful of equities traders was somehow better than Brandon’s support from thousands of working-class union members. Voters didn’t buy it, but the attack has resurfaced as a way to criticize Brandon’s decisions on issues ranging from personnel to his handling of public pensions.
Chicago’s most powerful businessmen and guardians of corporate interests, from the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago to the editorial board of The Chicago Tribune, understand from more than a decade of bitter conflict that the CTU is an implacable foe and at the center of Brandon’s victory in the mayor’s race. The city’s most important fighting union has been a key anchor not just in the 2023 mayoral election but for political movements in Chicago generally.
Yet the vitality of the Chicago movement springs from the organizing, cross-movement lesson-learning, and solidarity that is at the heart of what’s going on here, not from the CTU alone. Successive movements have left a rich legacy for radical politics, from the groundbreaking work against police torture to the campaign against Walmart and low-wage big-box retailers. After CORE’s upset victory in the 2010 union election, the insurgent-led CTU made its relationship to other unions, community organizations, and activist groups central to its plans. One of our first acts was launching a coalition called the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM). In early 2012 we put out a report, “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” that not only detailed improvements the schools needed, from wraparound services to arts education (and also detailed the ways poverty hurts children), along with a series of revenue-producing ideas to have the wealthy pay for them. This approach came to be called “Bargaining for the Common Good,” and it helped ensure that we had common cause with other activists in the city.
CTU and other organizers found ourselves in overlapping struggles, collaborating and influenced by one another on many occasions. From the beginning of CORE’s time in office, when the Occupy movement and the Wisconsin State Capitol occupation inspired us, to the actions of teenage climate activists who helped us develop thinking about green schools, movements influenced both city politics and the thinking inside the CTU. One particularly important example occurred in late 2015 when it came out that the Chicago police had shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in the back, and then covered it up for over a year. The Black Youth Project 100 and other young Black activists led the citywide response in a series of marches and confrontations with power that changed the way CTU members thought about the police, producing a campaign to cancel the annual $33 million police contract with the public schools.
But the bosses’ focus on the CTU reflects the reality that the union provides a historical legitimacy and organizational weight that distinguishes it from other organizations and movements. That legitimacy derives in part from the CTU’s role as a key voice for Chicago’s Black residents, stemming from the long-standing importance of public education for Black Chicagoans, the ugly legacy of segregated schools in the city, and the important role that Black teachers played in civil rights organizing. One of them was Mamie Till-Mobley, mother of Emmett Till, who taught in the Chicago public schools for 23 years. Black teachers also played an important role in combating racist schooling, as in the 1963 boycott against segregated schools. The CTU is also among the largest and most important institutions that has had a number of Black leaders — a relative rarity in Chicago, where Black people make up more than 25 percent of the population — starting with Jacqueline B. Vaughn, who led the union through several strikes in the 1980s before dying in office of cancer in 1994. Vaughn’s picture hung in the conference room of Karen Lewis when she was CTU’s president, and Karen often invoked her legacy and drew inspiration from her blunt style, including when she openly challenged Emanuel’s plans to close 50 schools in 2013 by saying that “88 percent of students impacted by CPS school actions are African American. And this is by design,” and accusing him of being the “murder mayor.” The campaign she led against the closings became a rallying point for many community and social justice activists who were concerned about Chicago’s stark racial and economic inequality. The current CTU president, Stacy Davis Gates, is a Chicago public school parent, former mayor Lori Lightfoot’s most effective public critic, and the chief architect of our political insurgency.
The CTU’s most unusual characteristic — and a source of our organizational power — has been our unwillingness to reach political accommodation with the city’s power structure. The 2012 strike reminded the labor movement at large about class politics and the power of labor militancy, but what happened after the strike proved just as significant. The CTU never adopted the kind of risk-averse, organizationally timid behavior that characterizes many unions today. Karen Lewis and the rest of the CTU leadership were not incorporated into the ruling democratic polity, nor did the union switch from industrial militancy to a lobbying strategy. Instead we went on to wage many more strikes and campaigns, ranging from the campaign against school closings and organizing against corporate tax giveaways to a long-term strategy to remove mayoral control of the schools and participation in protests and marches against police brutality.
The CTU has been able to bring money and mass organization with citywide structure to bear in a way that has anchored Chicago’s social movements since CORE’s election turned the union’s focus to organizing for the common good. Our roughly 27,000 members are required by statute to live in the city and are based in every neighborhood; by political necessity we have learned how to maintain relationships with our parents (as many of us are ourselves) and communities. Chicago’s more than 500 neighborhood public schools are a source of social services, including free meals (Chicago public schools served more than 21 million meals during the first six months of the pandemic, reported The Chicago Tribune) and are the most stable public institutions in many neighborhoods. Of course they are also workplaces, and every unionized school has an elected delegate (equivalent to a shop steward in other unions) who not only conducts meetings and represents the concerns of teachers and staff to management but also maintains relationships with parents and community groups at open houses, through the local school council, and in targeted campaigns. For example, if the Chicago Public Schools central office cuts a school’s budget (a common occurrence), teachers and CTU organizers reach out to parents and community organizations so that they can plan pickets, conduct press conferences, and petition in opposition to the cuts. Public schools are a nexus between Chicago’s largest local union and the city’s deep history of community organizing.
Many mainstream commentators tend to ignore the social justice focus CORE brought to the CTU and the resulting transformation of the union’s relationships with parents and the community and instead focus solely on the fact that the CTU and other unions contributed millions of dollars to Brandon’s campaign. Often the same commentators thought that Vallas’s huge fund-raising advantage and prominent endorsements would ensure his path to office. For one candidate, money is delegitimizing; for the other, it boosts his electability. Our legitimacy, especially in the eyes of Black Chicago; our mass organization that has made us a presence in every neighborhood; and our combative stance against the political status quo mean that we were a critical component of the political foment in Chicago over the past 10-plus years that led to Brandon Johnson’s election.
CORE came to lead the CTU thanks to a combination of good strategy, good people, and good luck. We started the caucus as a network of activists inside the union who were dismayed at the destruction of our public schools under the banner of market-driven education reform. One of our first projects was to study Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” as a way to understand how the city’s financial and political elites were using a looming fiscal crisis to attack public education. An outside observer who happened by the public library in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood would have seen Karen Lewis and the rest of the future CTU leadership with marked-up copies of the book and a pile of highlighters. But we always intended to be much more than a study group. From the beginning, we were focused on organizing co-workers and fighting for leadership of the union. Karen served as the union delegate at Lane Tech, the city’s largest high school. I also was the union delegate at a large high school, as was CORE co-founder Jackson Potter, who took a leave to organize the group. Our early campaigns targeted issues of key concern to CTU members: fighting school closings, filing discrimination lawsuits after layoffs at majority-Black schools, picketing principals who had committed egregious contract violations, and generally demonstrating the way the union should be led.
CORE benefited from a deep pool of talented members who brought valuable experience. The daughter of two Black Chicago public school teachers, Karen Lewis had taken a circuitous route to teaching high school chemistry (first came a sociology and music degree from Dartmouth, medical school, film school, and a stint as a stand-up comic), but she brought the lived experience of Black Chicago’s fights against racist school policies, including the 1963 school boycott and the fight against the mobile Willis Wagon classrooms and the 1968 strike to win permanent status for Black teachers. I came out of a radical labor organizer tradition — after college I graduated from the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, worked as an organizer for SEIU 1199 New England, and spent years involved in socialist politics in Chicago.
None of this might have mattered were it not for twin crises confronting the union’s leadership, a group called the United Progressive Caucus that had waged a series of militant strikes in the 1970s and ’80s but had become a complacent and entrenched bureaucracy. The first was an internal split caused by exorbitant staff salaries and overly generous perks bankrupting the union treasury. The second and more important issue revolved around the old guard’s inability to block market-driven school reforms that were massively ramping up standardized testing, closing so-called low-performing schools and laying off veteran teachers, privatizing services, and increasing the number of nonunion charter schools. The Chicago Public Schools CEO was threatening mass layoffs and increased class sizes unless the legislature adopted deep pension cuts. Yet all that union staff offered angry members at schools targeted for closure was advice about polishing their résumés. Old-guard leadership dismissed charters as an educational fad that would soon go away.
On the eve of the 2010 union election, CORE called for a mass march against the threatened layoffs. We printed thousands of beautiful full-color posters attacking the rationale for layoffs and pointing to corporate tax breaks as a source for needed revenue and distributed them in all the schools. Thousands of members turned out. While union leadership marched at the front of the event, it nonetheless was clear to most members which group had the ideas and organization to meet the coming attacks. CORE won the election and took office July 1, 2010.
Over the years that CORE has led the CTU, the union has had three presidents (I served from 2018 to 2022), conducted three strikes at CPS, waged nearly a dozen strikes in the charter sector, and survived a litany of legislative and political attacks ranging from the 2011 attempt to ban teacher strikes to Lightfoot’s offensive against our Covid-19 safety protocols. These experiences produced a set of organizational conclusions that remain relevant to our challenges today. Our bitter political conflicts with Chicago’s leading Democratic politicians led us to understand that we needed to form our own independent working-class-based political organization, United Working Families. The work required to maintain our unity under unrelenting austerity imparted key lessons about democratic practices and developing internal leadership so that rank-and-file members could become union leaders and union leaders in turn could run for citywide office. Bargaining for common-good demands taught us how to run polarizing campaigns that made audacious demands on the rich and powerful while building mass support.
When CORE first came to power, decades of social protections for teachers and students were being demolished at a fever pace. First came an attempt to dramatically increase the hours and intensity of work with no corresponding increase in pay. Emanuel and neoliberal education reformers such as Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children combined this attack on working conditions with an offensive against tenure and tried to impose punitive, test-based evaluation systems. Those were the main issues that drove the 2012 strike.
But this attack on teachers quickly broadened. Chicago’s financial elites in the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Civic Federation, and similar groups saw that decades of underfunding had finally caught up with the public schools, leaving Chicago Public Schools with an estimated billion-dollar-a-year structural deficit that they believed could be solved only by radical cuts. This meant determined attacks against teacher pensions and, most dramatically, Emanuel’s closing of 50 public schools in 2013.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact of the mass school closings on Chicago politics. With the exception of natural disasters such as hurricanes, it remains the largest mass school closing in the modern history of the U.S. The city administration and the mayor-appointed Board of Education released a list of 129 schools and conducted hearings to decide which of them would be closed. Tens of thousands of people participated, arriving in buses full of students, parents, teachers, and administrators who went on to plead their case in front of private consultants brought from out of town to sell the process. People gave searing, emotional testimony and demanded explanations. In response to that pressure, Emanuel’s administration kept shifting the rationale because it couldn’t tell people the truth: schools were being targeted to save money while real estate developers and corporate cronies got huge tax breaks. In the end, the board rubber-stamped 50 closings, surprising no one but hardening our resolve to ensure that Emanuel paid a political price.
CORE had come into office with an expansive view of educational justice and the belief that we needed a broad-based movement to win. The 2012 strike and especially the 2013 school closings fight forced us to conclude that we had to be serious about politics to truly affect what happens with teachers, students, and schools. The mayor’s office loomed large not only because it set city policy and appointed the education board but also because the mayor exerted a tremendous amount of power over elected officials, from city aldermen to statewide officials.
The people attacking our schools in the realm of public policy were Democrats — from Emanuel to a host of state and local politicians. Illinois Senate president John Cullerton worked for years to cut public pensions, and Gov. Pat Quinn campaigned with an ad promising to stop “Squeezy the Pension Python.” State Senator Iris Martinez staffed her campaign with former board members from the charter school network her policies benefited, and State Representative Christian Mitchell joined the attack on pensions and supported expanding charter schools — both with major financial backing from neoliberal Democrats. The City Council was no better.
In the summer of 2014, Karen began signaling that she would challenge Emanuel in the February 2015 municipal election and called on teachers and other movement activists to run for office themselves. Her events were well attended, and she led in early polls. At the time I thought this attempt was premature — we didn’t yet have the networks or organizational capacity to pull off a successful mayoral run, and doing so would distract our union from its other functions.
Brandon Johnson and Stacy Davis Gates, then the union’s political director, were key to the union articulating a way forward. They argued that serious political engagement was necessary to achieve our goals, and they proposed a plan to address the hostility of local politicians to our interests by building a new political organization: the United Working Families party.
The UWF was the result of the CTU and allies deciding to build a political apparatus that could deliver transformative change. We wanted a political party that could formulate a platform with clear ideas for change, develop activists, train candidates, and ultimately provide a structure that could push new, pro-working-class policies through the system. We also wanted all the benefits of campaigning: the lists of supporters, fund-raising work, and reputation building. If we were going to do the hard work of challenging Emanuel and his supporters electorally, we wanted the ability to set the political agenda.
In October 2014, Karen’s bid for mayor was cut short by her brain cancer diagnosis. The union was left with few options but to endorse Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a reliable progressive but hardly the kind of combative, campaigning figure we needed to win. Without Karen, we lacked a clear path to elected office, and the political forces arrayed against us continued to intensify. The election of Bruce Rauner, a Federalist Society–friendly Republican, as governor that November signaled the start of an acute crisis. Yet Stacy’s vision for building the UWF proved prescient. Too often unions are left with little to nothing to show for this kind of dramatic turn and counterturn of fortune besides a pile of flyers for a defeated candidate sitting in your junk mail. But in this case we were able to launch the UWF, which quickly began to cohere a layer of working-class activists, largely women of color, into an important political force.
Brandon Johnson gave an instructive interview about the UWF in 2014, fresh off the battle over school closings. He explained: “We just don’t know who our allies are anymore. We don’t know who our champions are when it comes to the issues that resonate with our members, particularly at the classroom level. So you might have Democrats that say, ‘Look, I’m for public schools, I’m in favor of public education. I want to see small class sizes.’ But there are no policy initiatives or legislation that speaks to that desire.”
The worry was not just that Rauner would block critical funds from the schools and threaten us with bankruptcy — which he did do — but also that our own membership would become so demoralized by the severe budget cuts and worsening conditions in the schools that they would be unwilling to invest in a long-term political project that required a high degree of both unity and confidence in our ability to create change. The CTU navigated this difficult period of unrelenting austerity by mobilizing our members and simultaneously involving them in debate about strategy. This deeply democratic internal method included widespread substantive discussions, contested votes, continual political education, and political risk-taking, all of which ultimately allowed us to maintain our struggle and set the stage for later contractual advances and political wins.
The Chicago Board of Education had “solved” a series of financial shortfalls beginning in 2010 with increasingly desperate short-term gimmicks. By 2015 the cash-starved Chicago Public Schools was worried about making payroll and cutting costs in every conceivable part of its operation. In early 2016 Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool sent a letter to the union threatening a unilateral 7 percent pay cut. When the union responded by notifying the district that such a cut would provoke a strike, the district further threatened mass layoffs and later implemented unpaid furlough days. Despite some bitter internal conflict, the CTU was able to maintain unity and deepen the political involvement of our membership while facing these challenges and a near breakdown in our bargaining relationship with our employer.
Teachers and other school staff were incensed by the furloughs, not least because the board canceled days that had been scheduled for teacher planning without reducing the actual planning requirements; instead of seeing both their workload and their pay shrink slightly, teachers had to perform unpaid work. At the same time classroom conditions deteriorated rapidly as the district virtually stopped filling vacancies. Students who were diagnosed with special needs could not get the legally mandated help, and the workload for the remaining special education teachers skyrocketed. School after school reported dysfunctional, dangerous conditions due to short staffing.
Members demanded a response from their union. But there was no short-term solution to the financial crisis undergirding the crisis in the schools. We found ourselves in a situation where most of the typical tools of unionism — grievances, public campaigns, even workplace actions — simply would not induce the employer to hire more staff or spend money it didn’t have.
The debate about how to respond to the financial crisis felt chaotic, wide open, sometimes desperate, and often uncomfortable. Some members demanded we hire more lawyers to fight the furloughs and understaffing. Others suggested that we stop writing recommendations and meeting with parents, withholding the unpaid work we typically perform after school. Some members insisted that powerful moral arguments could produce solutions, while others were angry at the union, arguing that if it couldn’t protect teachers against furloughs, it should stop collecting union dues to make up the shortfall. That would have bankrupted the union at precisely the time teachers needed it most.
Rather than try to quash this debate or channel it into a legislative campaign, our union remained committed to our democratic internal method and organized discussions about what we should do. We made our response to the fiscal crisis the subject of intense school-level meetings and discussions in the union’s elected bodies, including the House of Delegates (the union’s largest deliberative body) and the Executive Board. We then held special citywide leader trainings, attended by hundreds of members, to take input and develop our approach. We also produced and disseminated a steady stream of high-quality analyses about the nature of the fiscal crisis, including detailed research about the role played by outsourcing and privatization, tax giveaways, and other handouts to the super-wealthy.
These discussions led to an anti-austerity campaign created with rank-and-file leaders that included a plan to work to rule — a concerted effort by members to perform only contractually required work and boycott unpaid duties. The plan was adopted in a vote before the House of Delegates. Working to rule proved to be difficult for teachers; many disliked withholding the extra work that makes our connections to students and parents more productive and meaningful. Other elements of the campaign were more successful: wearing union colors on Friday, distributing buttons and literature, and demonstrating against the staffing cuts. We continued to enforce hard-fought rules in the workplace, filing complaints about class size and special education workloads that emphasized the importance of our contract. The fact that the board’s financial crisis meant that no relief was forthcoming did not stop us.
All the internal debate, as frustrating and discordant as it was at times, meant that our membership stayed engaged and developed a shared political perspective in the face of deep adversity. We also kept our union from devolving into a talk shop where we debated ideas but failed to involve our members in workplace actions and solidarity. Members did not just receive communications but were actively participating in face-to-face conversations, debates, votes, and actions. Those interactions led to an understanding that the frustrations we faced required a strategic response and increased people’s connection to the union during a challenging time.
In order to address the financial problems, we needed long-term, structural changes to the way schools were funded. It was necessary for us to acknowledge the limitations of what we could achieve at that exact moment without letting the bosses off the hook. We also believed in putting forward a positive vision of what fully funded schools and generous public accommodations would mean for our community. So the CTU made direct demands of corporate and financial targets that allowed us to campaign for our vision and conduct broad, effective public outreach.
The first was a campaign against local banks and the Board of Education that made capital a target. Using research by the Action Center on Race and the Economy, we dug into Chicago Public Schools’ rapidly increasing involvement in high-risk financial instruments and found that while local government coffers may have been dry, the wealthy corporations and financial institutions involved in those transactions were doing quite well. We argued that the board was “broke on purpose,” pointing to the financial decisions that benefited the education privatizers and financiers who were then running the schools at the expense of the school system overall. One example we highlighted was a series of high-risk interest rate hedges (so-called toxic swaps) that contributed to the board owing at least $617 million to Wall Street. We demanded that the banks that had negotiated these instruments return the money to the schools, and we asked the board to sign on to this demand.
We hoped that by exposing the inner mechanisms of municipal financing, we could break the illusion that government is separate and unconnected from the financial institutions that dominate our society. We asked why Bank of America and other investment banks should make hundreds of millions in profits off the public schools at the same time that students go without basic services like counseling or special education. The point of the campaign was not to fix Chicago Public Schools’ finances in the short term. We knew Bank of America was unlikely to return any profits it had made on the interest-rate market. The campaign was political — to make it clear to our members, and anyone else who was paying attention, that bosses were cutting services for the poor to protect investment bankers’ windfall profits.
CTU members — joined by other union members, housing and disability rights activists, and representatives from community-based organizations such as Grassroots Collaborative, Action Now, and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council — staged sit-ins in bank lobbies, picketed corporate offices, and spoke out in the media. When the public could see angry members making demands of bankers, it was hard to miss the larger point even if they didn’t know how interest-rate swaps worked: these guys got rich while we got screwed.
The 2016 fiscal crisis did not just affect the schools, of course. A wide swath of social service providers, state universities, health care facilities, and other essential institutions were in financial freefall. We decided to organize a citywide general strike to demand that the city close corporate tax loopholes, tax the financial exchanges, end real estate development subsidies, and use the funds to invest in social services.
We struck on April 1, 2016. The coalition that took part in this mass protest included housing rights and immigrant rights organizations, other unions (though only the CTU had all of its members actually walk off the job), Black youth organizations, antiracist and abolitionist forces, and many more. Nearly 30,000 people demonstrated in Chicago that day. The strike dominated the news, and the forces united in this coalition showed the deadlocked politicians in Springfield that more revenue was needed to fund social services — the only way forward out of the impasse we were facing.
The Broke on Purpose campaign, the Justice for Laquan McDonald campaign, and the 2016 general strike emphasized aspirational political goals and sharp critiques of what was wrong with the city. These were not “safe” campaigns; not all CTU members supported them. They were broadly political and targeted specific corporations and institutions, such as Bank of America and real estate developers like Ivanhoé Cambridge. Similarly, when the news of McDonald’s murder at the hands of the Chicago police broke in late 2015, the CTU put itself firmly on the side of the movements, endorsing the emergency marches, passing resolutions, and engaging in local activism against the police presence in our schools. In all these cases we took a strongly oppositional stance not just toward the Board of Education but toward larger and more powerful forces in the city. This strategy allowed us to escape the defensive and limited prospects of making demands on a financially starved bureaucracy. Instead we went on the offensive against some of the most powerful political and financial brokers of Chicago.
For those of us who campaigned hard for Brandon’s election, the buzz of victory has faded into the demands of our work. Some who went into his administration are feeling the pressure of working under sky-high expectations and conditions they did not create. Meanwhile progress on jobs, housing, policing, and the kind of reform that Brandon promised moves slowly. Others among us continue to build grassroots organizations and resist the urge to read every news story about the new administration as a sign of the ultimate success or failure of our project. The kind of dedication we expect from Chicago’s activist community is present throughout the city: volunteers overwhelming migrant centers with offers of help for the immigrants bused from Texas, neighborhood volunteers and CTU activists organizing youth summer programs, and hundreds coming out to join the UWF and stay involved. But we don’t yet have the set of unifying demands and campaigns that we need to push for our priorities and make them a reality.
This is the kind of transition that can disorient activists. We have gone from the dynamic of opposition to the dynamic of a campaign and now to the dynamic of working with our comrade in office, all within a few short months. We will make it through this transition by talking about it — writing about it, discussing it, and maintaining our critical connections to one another. We didn’t elect Brandon so that we could sit back, watch the news, and feel smart about our critique — but we also didn’t agree to keep our mouths shut when immigrant families get kicked out of a shelter and are forced to sleep in a tent after arriving seven minutes past curfew. We need to do more than simply hold Brandon accountable for living up to his campaign promises; we need our movement and organizational strategies to live up to our own standards.
The work we have been doing over the past decade helps prepare us for the next set of challenges. We built the UWF to be an independent, working-class political organization in order for our forces to be able to influence government directly. Now we need to build it even bigger and use it. We learned that we can develop new layers of leadership and increase rank-and-file activism by leaning into our democratic practices and participation. Now we need to recruit new activists and involve them in the decision-making of our unions, neighborhood groups, and coalitions. And we learned how to make audacious demands on corporate titans and political power brokers. Now we must build campaigns that allow us to march, demonstrate, and call for housing, jobs, green environmental policy, and an end to the carceral state. Our movement is powerful — let’s use it to make a better city.
Jesse Sharkey is a teacher (currently on leave to write) who lives in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. He was one of the founders of CORE and served as the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union from 2010 to 2018 and as president from 2018 to 2022.