Close Lightfoot ally behind ad campaign to unseat CTU leadership
A former top adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Lisa Schneider Fabes, is behind a paid social media campaign supporting challengers to the current Chicago Teachers Union leadership team in the union’s upcoming election.
A former top adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot is behind a social media campaign supporting challengers to the current Chicago Teachers Union leadership team in the union’s upcoming election.
The campaign to lead perhaps the city’s strongest and most recognizable union is drawing significantly more attention than usual after three straight years of disputes with the mayor, who has long viewed the CTU as one of her most strident political adversaries, particularly ahead of a mayoral election next year in which the union is expected to oppose her.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey announced he won’t seek reelection, but Stacy Davis Gates, his vice president, is running for the top seat. Their side of the union, called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, is a progressive group that has pushed for social and educational justice and been in charge through a strike and two near-strikes that led to missed classes during the pandemic. Their opponents, called Members First, want the union to focus on bread and butter labor issues such as pay and benefits and have called for more transparency in the union’s political efforts.
Lisa Schneider Fabes, a Lightfoot ally, confirmed her involvement Thursday in promoting Members First in a targeted advertising campaign. She oversaw the Lightfoot administration’s transition into office in 2019 and was chief operating officer of the mayor’s election campaign.She resigned that year from Lightfoot’s administration while under investigation by the city’s inspector general for living in Wilmette as she collected a city paycheck. She’s a member of the District 39 school board in the northern suburb.
Schneider Fabes said neither the mayor nor Members First are connected to the effort. Employer involvement in union elections violates federal labor law and the CTU prohibits those running for leadership positions from seeking outside financial or in-kind support.
City Hall spokeswoman Kate LeFurgy said Lightfoot and her team “have had zero involvement in any internal union election, ever.
“This activity has apparently been independently pursued by a former staff member, who left her role ... more than two years ago,” she said. “The mayor remains committed to respecting the independent, democratic processes of our partners in the labor movement without interference.”
Members First leaders declined to comment.
Schneider Fabes said her involvement with the new group, called Chicago Teachers United, is transparent. Her connection was discovered by CTU leadership — and tipped off to reporters Thursday because of concerns of outside election interference — through a reverse search of her phone number listed on the organization’s Facebook page.
The group has paid $472 for three advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, records show, reaching at least 23,000 users combined since Tuesday. Each of the ads links to the Members First website.
One has a picture of what appears to be a teacher and reads, “CTU leadership cost each and every member more than $1,600 in pay last month but all we got were a couple of extra N95 masks. Time for a change.”
Shortly after WBEZ and the Sun-Times asked Schneider Fabes about the page, the ads were deactivated.
“I’m an education activist and advocate for public schools,” she said. “Teachers United is funded by a group of civic-minded parents who love Chicago, admire teachers and public schools.”
She said she helped start the group in January because she cares “about what happens in my community and of course in Chicago, where I’ve spent my entire career on issues ranging from improving affordable housing to public schools.
“We have zero connection whatsoever to Members First, but we have great admiration for their courage to challenge the status quo as well as their commitment to their profession, their union and the children they teach. This is not connected to the mayor or CPS in any way.”
Involvement in a union election by an employer is a clear violation of federal labor law, said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations and wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike. He said he’s concerned whether there’s enough separation between Schneider Fabes and the mayor’s office.
Bruno added that union members usually oppose outside influence on an internal election.
Jesse Sharkey, the outgoing president of the CTU, said it was “unprecedented” and “despicable” for non-members to influence votes, calling it an “abuse of power” for someone tied to the mayor to do so.
“If Lisa Fabes wants to influence the outcome of a CTU election, I encourage her to come get a job at CPS, do the work that we do and join the union, and she’d be more than welcome to put her opinions forward in a fair election,” Sharkey said. “I’d really much rather lose a union election to another set of union members than to lose a union election to the boss.
“It’s an affront to the integrity of our union and our ability to make decisions without having well-paid political operatives run campaigns inside the CTU,” he said. “Decisions about who leads the CTU are up to members of the CTU, period.”
Jackson Potter, a member of CORE leadership, said all CTU members, no matter their political beliefs or affiliations, should agree that people outside the union working to sway a vote “is antithetical to having clean and transparent elections.
“It’s incumbent on [Members First] to condemn the usage of their platform and logo and website in the interests of dividing our union and really harming it,” he said. “And they should make that abundantly clear. And if they’re not willing to do that, then that probably tells you something.”
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ Chicago. Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.