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Chicago will have a new mayor in just two weeks. Former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Paul Vallas and Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson both emerged from a crowded field and are facing off in the April 4 runoff election. 

While the issue of crime and policing has taken center stage as the top issue for Chicago voters, other issues hold weight, too, such as education, employment, mental health, housing, poverty, abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights. The candidates have radically different ideas on how to address the city’s range of challenges.

Vallas and Johnson’s connections to labor unions have come under scrutiny. The Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) endorsed Vallas and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has backed Johnson in the race.

Vallas consulted for the FOP in its recent contract agreement with the city; he has repeatedly said on the campaign trail that he didn’t receive any compensation for that work. He also accepted the union’s endorsement, but has distanced himself from its controversial president, John Catanzara, and said he hasn’t gotten any campaign funding from the FOP. 

Catanzara has often grabbed the spotlight as a right-wing figure: he threatened to fire a Black police officer for kneeling with protestors in 2020, and publicly defended Jan. 6 insurrectionists in 2021. In February, the FOP hosted right-wing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis at an event for its members in Chicago’s western suburb of Elmhurst, IL, a move Vallas criticized. Rank-and-file CPD officers reelected Catanzara to a second presidential term on March 3.

Johnson is a former CPS teacher and remains a paid CTU organizer whose campaign is primarily funded by the union, something Vallas and his surrogates have repeatedly criticized. His candidacy is the culmination of the union’s shift towards advocating for housing, healthcare and other social justice issues since under the leadership of the late Karen Lewis and Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in the 2010s and supporting candidates for public office. Lewis, who died in 2021, had considered running for mayor herself, but illness prevented her from doing so. 

The election’s focus on law and order, as well as its anti-CTU rhetoric, occurs amid a wider backlash to America’s racial reckoning post-George Floyd. When organizers and progressives nationwide hit the streets during the 2020 uprisings to demand the reallocation of police budgets to community services, city leaders in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles upped the funding for police departments. The backlash is also evident through the ongoing debates around critical race theory and book bans of texts discussing race, racism, sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

According to several people who spoke to The TRiiBE, anti-CTU rhetoric during the election is grounded in a perceived fear that if Johnson becomes mayor, the issues that CTU has been organizing around for more than a decade, such as education, housing, and healthcare, would lead to the disruption of the city’s status quo and the interests of Chicago’s elite.

“We wanted fully funded schools. We fought for an elected, representative school board over the last almost 10 years,” Tammie Vinson, a CTU executive board member and trustee, told The TRiiBE. “That school board will take away a lot of the unilateral power that the mayor has. So my thought is that maybe some of the political wins of the union are causing others to think that it is too powerful, that the union is too strong, and that they’re dictating policy.”

David Stovall, a Black Studies and Criminology, Law and Justice professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), echoed Vinson’s sentiments.

“I don’t think that CTU is looking to control the city. I don’t see any evidence of that. They are moving on a campaign that has put forward the connection of education to housing, employment, and health care. That puts a lot of folks who have reaped from the traditional city neoliberal politics on notice,” Stovall said. 

He added that to “prevent the wave of justice-centered thinking,” those who align with corporate or business industry interests use this rhetoric to stoke the fears of those who’ve benefited from the system as it exists today.

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 23: Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets, stopping traffic and circling City Hall in a show support for the ongoing teachers strike on October 23, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Union teachers and school staff members are demanding more funding from the city in order to lower class sizes, hire more support staff, and build new affordable housing for the 16,000 Chicago Public Schools students whose families are homeless. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Support for labor unions peaked over the last three years in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, more than 16 million workers in the United States were represented by a union. That’s an increase of 200,000 from 2021, according to the Economic Policy Institute

Labor unions have racked up victories nationally: Amazon workers on Staten Island, NY, voted to unionize in September 2022 despite retaliation from the company, and Starbucks workers at more than 300 stores across three dozen states held union elections last year, with more than 80 percent voting in favor of unionization. In January, UIC faculty members went on a four-day strike and won stronger job protections, pay raises, expanded resources for student wellness and more. 

And on March 21, teachers and school support workers in Los Angeles kicked off a three-day strike with a massive protest at the L.A. school district headquarters amid driving rain.

Anti-union rhetoric might be an expected response to significant gains by organized labor, but the specific hostility toward educator unions can also be tied to the profession’s gender makeup. Teaching has become a woman-dominated career in recent years, and CTU president Stacy Davis Gates told The TRiiBE she thinks that’s behind the hostility. 

“So, I would say that women being completely in charge of and clear about their own self-determination has always been a radical idea in a patriarchal society,” Gates said. “Educator unions have done something that our larger employment spaces have yet to do. We have pay equity,” she continued.

How the 2012 teachers strike thrust the CTU into politics

The 2012 CTU strike was transformative in Chicago, the nation and the globe. Not only was it the city’s largest labor action in decades, it was its first teachers’ strike in 25 years. The 2012 strike birthed a new era in the union, which began centering its work on ending school privatization and expanding equality by investing in local communities, schools and the lives of students in their care. 

The 2012 strike inspired teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia and Kentucky—states led by Republicans who had “whittled down funding for public education to amounts there were just uncomfortable,” Stovall said. 

During the 2012 strike, thousands of CTU members participated in massive rallies downtown and on the South and West sides. They were joined by parents, students and community members. Over the ensuing decade, the union and its allies held protests around the mass school closures spearheaded by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and rallied for an elected representative school board, which became law in 2021

Teachers advocated for smaller class sizes, more art and music classes, nurses, social workers and an end to public school privatization. The union won a 17 percent pay raise and additional resources, including hiring more support staff and social workers. The 2012 strike is widely considered to be a success. 

Some of the catalysts of the 2012 strike can be traced back to the mid-1990s and the beginning of charter school expansion in Chicago. The 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act, a state law passed by a Republican legislature, put CPS completely under the control of then-mayor Richard M. Daley, who appointed Vallas as the first CPS CEO.

From there, the district turned to privatization in the mid-2000s under the Renaissance 2010 plan, which closed public neighborhood schools in majority-Black and brown neighborhoods and expanded private charter and contract schools. Between 2001 and 2009, CPS closed 73 schools and opened 82 new ones, 62 of which were charters.

At that time, the CTU was “largely complicit with the mayor’s education agenda, but in 2008 a group of teachers formed an anti-neoliberal education caucus, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE),” according to a 2013 essay by Eric Gutsein and Pauline Lipman’s, The Rebirth of the Chicago Teachers Union and Possibilities for a Counter-Hegemonic Education Movement.

The group of teachers who founded CORE, which included beloved CTU leader Karen Lewis, forged partnerships with parents and community organizations to oppose school privatization. CORE assumed leadership of the union in 2010. Lewis was elected president that same year. 

“The alliances they forged became an important component of the labor-community formations opposing education privatization in Chicago. These are the roots of the social movement unionism that the CTU is trying to build today,” Gutsein and Lipman wrote. 

An accusation that has often been lobbed at CTU—during the 2012 and 2019 strikes, and again during negotiations in 2022 when CPS, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration and CTU were negotiating about children returning to school during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic—claims that teachers only care about salary increases. Teachers, the criticism goes, talk big about social reform, but in the end only ever bargain for salaries.

But that criticism misses a critical fact, namely that the Republicans’ 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act restricted the CTU from bargaining over anything but pay and benefits in their contracts.

“It created this hostility at the table, that the members who knew they needed more in their school communities were being shut out of a real discussion,” Gates said. “They didn’t have any agency.”

Gates said Daley and Emanuel were “willing to bargain over wages and benefits but refused to bargain over things like class size, the school calendar and curriculum,” she said. 

Though the state law limited what they could bargain over, Gates said that during the CTU’s 2019 strike, representatives from Lightfoot’s administration were willing to discuss issues they hadn’t discussed in previous negotiations because teachers were on strike. The CTU’s 2019 strike lasted 11 days, a few days longer than the previous 2012 strike.


Lightfoot’s negotiators “were very clear about keeping the number of subjects very narrow to the law, and once the members were on strike, we still hadn’t concluded anything. So they opened up the negotiations to include those things,” Gates said. 

Days before the CTU went on strike in 2019, Lightfoot said the union’s demand for affordable housing was one of the stalemates for contract negotiations. 

On Oct. 8, 2019, Lightfoot said, “Instead of providing a response to our comprehensive proposal, CTU presented its demands to set the City’s affordable housing policy through their collective bargaining agreement, demanding that the City enact CTU’s preferred affordable housing policy as part of their contract. My administration is committed to addressing Chicago’s affordable housing challenges. That’s why I appointed the City’s first housing commissioner in a decade, and announced a new and transparent plan for distributing Low Income Housing Tax Credits, with more progress to come.”

The full statement continues, “Affordable housing is a critical issue that affects residents across Chicago, and everyone’s voices need to be heard during this process. As such, the CTU collective bargaining agreement is not the appropriate place for the City to legislate its affordable housing policy.”

The CTU demanded smaller class sizes, prep time and to add nurses and counselors in all schools. They also pushed for affordable housing for teachers and students’ families. As a result, the union won salary raises, sanctuary schools, caps on class sizes, and a promise of nurses and counselors in every school, among other things. 

In 2021, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation repealing the 1995 state law, giving the CTU more agency to bargain over issues outside of wages and benefits despite a plea from Lightfoot to wait until 2024. Gates said the union has yet to be able to benefit from the law. The current CTU contract will expire in 2025, midway through the next mayor’s first term.

Chicago’s current school board has seven members who are all appointed by the mayor. In 2025, Chicago will have a 21-person school board; 11 of the seats will be appointed by the mayor, and 10 will be elected. In 2026, an election will be held for the 11 seats that were appointed by the mayor, making the board fully elected by 2027.  

“We are looking forward to that. We will also be negotiating with a school board, half of which would have been elected. So this is going to be a completely different way of doing things. I look forward to it because you’ve expanded democracy, and you have gained parity at the table to talk about the things that impact educators inside the school community and more importantly, inside of the classroom as well. So those are all positive things.”

CTU’s electoral bids have roots in Emanuel school closings

This coming May marks the tenth anniversary of the Board of Education’s 2013 vote approving the closure of 50 CPS schools—the most of any school district in history. The mass school closures during Emanuel’s tenure would be another issue that the union and its allies rallied around.

“It was traumatic, and it leaves you breathless and discouraged and disappointed. It leaves you feeling devalued and disposable,” Gates recalled how she felt after the Board of Education voted to approve Emanuel’s plan to close 50 schools. 

Gates recalls the closures as another pivotal shift in the CTU’s thrust into politics. 

One day after the board’s vote, Gates said Lewis told the media, “‘The mayor has unilateral control over the school and everything that happens in the schools, and consequently, we can’t break through. And because we can’t break through, then we are going to have to figure out how to contest the powers that closed our schools.’ She [Lewis] said we’re also going to transform the city’s political landscape because mayoral control is restrictive.”

That moment, Gates said, ignited their work. 

Jhatayn “Jay” Travis is one of the earliest examples of the CTU endorsing a candidate. The  CTU twice endorsed Travis, a community organizer and executive director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, for state representative for Illinois’ 26th District in the 2014 and 2016 elections against then-state Rep. Christian Mitchell. Travis did not win in either of the two elections. 

Ald. Sue Garza (10th Ward) was the first CTU member elected to the City Council in 2015. Garza defeated the incumbent John Pope by 20 votes in a runoff election. Garza announced that she would be retiring from the city council in 2022. Since 2014, CTU has endorsed a slate of candidates in Chicago elections and statewide races. 

The Supreme Court ruled that unions are an inherently political space,” Gates said. “So everything we do is ostensibly political. So I don’t understand what people are saying because the Supreme Court said that labor unions are political, so since they are political spaces, we also do politics.” 

Campaign donations from labor unions are not unique to Johnson’s campaign or the CTU. However, Stovall argues that organizations being able to shift to 501(c)(4) status, meaning that they can engage in politics and raise money for political campaigns and causes, changed things. Some of the nation’s most powerful special-interest groups, like the National Rifle Association, have 501(c)(4) status. On March 9, the CTU’s executive board voted to approve the appropriation of $8 in union dues per month to support Johnson, according to WBEZ. CTU’s membership dues are used in various ways, for contract negotiations, lawyers for bargaining, paying for staff salaries and printing picket signs, according to its website.

“We’ve always had this in terms of unions, putting in dollars to candidates they thought would benefit them,” Stovall said. “The Daley administration showed their commitment and loyalty to the unions backing them through various patronage deals they would hand to them. So it’s an age-old practice. It’s just changed up.”

In the runoff election, Stovall added that having a candidate like Johnson with a justice-centered campaign makes a difference.

What needs to be added to the conversation around labor union endorsement, Gates said, is the fact that Johnson has the support of other Black-led labor unions other than CTU—something she says is unheard of. 

SEIU Local 73, which Dian Palmer leads, and SEIU Healthcare Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and Kansas which are led by Greg Kelley, have both endorsed Johnson, for example. 

“Our unions provided the infrastructure to [Johnson’s] campaign,” Gates said. “When was the last time that you’ve seen Black labor leaders in the city of Chicago pour resources into a Black man running for mayor of Chicago? We’ve never seen that before. Where in the history of this country has something like that happened?”

That, she said, is a powerful statement that can help transform the city and that Black people can be inspired by. 

“Black labor, people who work and live in this city, they are funding this [campaign], that is something to see,” Gates said. “We are being led in this moment by the idea of Black liberation and Black workers.”

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.