Sharkey urges CTU ‘unity’ after report about teachers’ trip to Venezuela

“If you’re for Venezuela or against Venezuela, you’re a member of the CTU,” Sharkey said, asking the union to refocus on contract negotiations.

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CTU President Jesse Sharkey, speaking to reporters at an unrelated news conference Tuesday, commented on a report about teachers traveling to Venezuela.

Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey urged unity from his members after a report earlier this week detailed some arguing over a trip to Venezuela by a group of Chicago teachers.

For a frustrated Sharkey, the entire issue was unwanted attention on CTU infighting during a pivotal time in contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools.

“Our union right now is trying to win a contract, which governs all the conditions for everyone here at work and all the students in schools,” Sharkey said Tuesday afternoon in response to a reporter’s question at an unrelated news conference.

Last month’s crowdfunded trip to Venezuela by a group that called itself a “CTU delegation” was not sponsored, organized or paid for by the teachers’ union. In a blog, the group said it was visiting schools and meeting with government officials “to learn from educators and activists on the ground.” They said they wanted to find out the “truth” about the country’s socialist government, not simply what they heard in U.S. media.

Though the group said it was expressing its own opinions, it said it was inspired by the CTU’s House of Delegates passing a resolution in March to “oppose the invasion of Venezuela.”

But some fellow union members and expats have voiced their displeasure in recent weeks — most notably in a front-page Chicago Tribune article Monday — about the group’s apparent support of a government that the United Nations has condemned for human rights abuses. Specifically, critics have been angered by the branding of the trip falling under the CTU banner.

Much of the criticism has come from a few educators in the “Members First” CTU caucus, which lost the CTU election in May that saw Sharkey regain his position as president. Members First is generally more centrally aligned politically than the current progressive CTU leadership and urges the union’s focus to remain on rank-and-file members rather than national or international political issues.

Rebecca Testa-Ryan, an 8th grade history teacher, told the Chicago Sun-Times in July that “what they do on their own is their business. However, once they use CTU as a platform under [Venezuelan President Nicolas] Maduro’s leadership, that is an issue that we have a problem with.”

“The problem that we’re having is that they’re representing the Chicago Teachers Union while they are going to Venezuela,” said Testa-Ryan. “That is the issue that many members do not accept and really don’t want to be a part of.”

Ana Gil-Garcia, who immigrated to the United States from Venezuela in 1995 to teach at Northeastern Illinois University, is a co-founder of the Illinois Venezuelan Alliance and said she goes to the country twice a year to visit family, including her 90-year-old grandmother.

Still, Gil-Garcia told the Sun-Times last month that the trip was essentially an endorsement of Maduro by the CTU since the union’s name was used by the group.

“This is more into a political type of group that is going to go there for propaganda purposes of the government,” Gil-Garcia said.

Sharkey said he understands the concerns raised but that “one of the things that we’re really proud of at the CTU is we have a lot of members who are really proud of our union. I have no interest in policing what they’re going to say. I don’t have the ability even if I wanted to do that.”

“I would just say to the people for and against Venezuela, please stop. It’s not where we need to be going right now,” Sharkey said. “If you’re for Venezuela or against Venezuela, you’re a member of the CTU.”

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