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Progressive CTU leaders face challengers looking to ‘refocus’ in Friday election

Chicago Teachers Union officers Jesse Sharkey (right) and Stacy Davis Gates speak outside an August 2017 Board of Education meeting. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

When Lori Lightfoot assumes the mayor’s office, one of her first pressing tasks will be hammering out a new contract with the Chicago Teachers Union.

One more election remains to decide who will be on the other side of the bargaining table.

More than 25,000 CTU members will vote Friday in the organization’s first contested election in six years, with the caucus that has run the union since 2010 — and drawn national attention for the broad swath of social issues it advocates for outside city classrooms — facing a slate of challengers who argue the CTU has misplaced focus on politics over teachers’ working conditions.

Current CTU President Jesse Sharkey is running to hold his seat along with Vice President Stacy Davis Gates and financial secretary Maria Moreno, all as candidates of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). Paraprofessional Christel Williams-Hayes is CORE’s recording secretary candidate to replace Michael Brunson, who is stepping down.

Citywide Chicago Public Schools psychologist Therese Boyle is running to take Sharkey’s seat under the banner of the “Members First” caucus. Boyle bristles at the suggestion the group has a more conservative approach but says the union needs to “refocus on the needs of our members.”

Counselor and VP candidate Victor Ochoa, financial secretary candidate Sharon Davis and recording secretary candidate Deborah Yaker round out the Members First ticket.

Members First caucus members from left: Debbie Yaker, Therese Boyle, Sharon Davis and Victor Ochoa. | Provided photo
Members First caucus members from left: Debbie Yaker, Therese Boyle, Sharon Davis and Victor Ochoa. | Provided photo

Progressive CORE officers first were voted in with fiery former CTU President Karen Lewis’ might in a crowded runoff election nine years ago, ushering in years of head-butting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel that included a sea of red-shirted members going on strike in 2012.

Lewis cruised to re-election in 2013 and didn’t face any opposition in 2016 before she stepped down due to health issues last summer and then-VP Sharkey assumed the presidency.

The current CORE leadership has kept up Lewis’ banner of flexing financial muscle in backing advocacy groups whose work reached far beyond school conditions and teacher pay to causes such as immigration and police accountability — a practice that still raises eyebrows among some members who question the spending.

“There are people who want to retreat back to a more bread-and-butter, pay and benefits way of seeing things,” Sharkey says. “We don’t think that’s the best way to go.

“We advocate for members precisely by advocating for our students, schools and community. We don’t counterpose issues with racial and social or economic justice. The way you get resources into the schools is by advocating for public education broadly.”

Sharkey said that approach has helped them fend off privatization of school services and slow charter school growth with the addition of unionized campuses — and three subsequent strikes — improving conditions for those educators.

“We have built up a lot of credibility and power in this city because people understand we’re not just out for our own pay,” Sharkey says.

But Boyle says the union didn’t make enough gains to attract and retain teachers in the last round of negotiations — and claims much of the union’s power lies in opaque political spending through political action committees without input from members.

She also criticized leadership for buying office space for their current West Town headquarters while still leased to pricy space at the Merchandise Mart through next year. That decision was approved under the previous leadership team in 2009, but Boyle says continued development still reflects “impulsive” financial stewardship.

“They’re like someone who just bought a house, who fixes up their kitchen and guts it, then goes out to buy a new car and head down to Disney World,” Boyle says. “You can’t do that when you’re operating a business or a union. You have to make sure everything is solid.”

Boyle says Members First wouldn’t abandon social justice initiatives — “just do it with more transparency.”