Jesse Sharkey won’t seek reelection as head of 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union
The former social studies teacher will step away from CTU leadership when his fourth term ends June 30 and plans to return to the classroom.
Jesse Sharkey, the wonky president of the Chicago Teachers Union who has waded through various disputes with city officials and pushed for substantial social justice-oriented changes at Chicago Public Schools, has announced he won’t seek reelection to the union’s top office this spring.
Known for his grasp of policy and measured demeanor, Sharkey oftentimes appeared more comfortable operating behind the scenes than giving rousing speeches in front of thousands of union educators.
But it was his efforts with Karen Lewis — his firebrand predecessor who stepped away shortly after she was diagnosed with a brain tumor — that made social, racial and educational injustices core targets of what grew over the past decade into a militant union admired by activist teachers across the country. His team has in turn faced criticism from some corners for pulling a union of educators into the political battlefield.
The former social studies teacher will step away from CTU leadership when his fourth term ends June 30, and with the 25,000-member union and the city both at a crossroads. Teachers are deciding in May whether to continue with his team’s justice-centered leadership or a slate of candidates focused strictly on pay and benefits. Chicagoans have a choice to make a year from now about who leads from City Hall’s fifth floor, with the CTU likely to support a candidate of its own in an effort to block Mayor Lori Lightfoot from a second term.
Sharkey, 52, didn’t entirely rule out throwing his name in the ring with those running for mayor. For now, he plans to return to the classroom. A Maine native, Sharkey last taught in 2010 at Senn High School in Rogers Park and has since been on leave for his union work.
“It’s partly personal,” Sharkey said of his decision. “This is a difficult job, it takes its toll. I’ve been doing it a long time and I feel like it’s time for me to do something different.
“It’s also political,” he said. “I see myself as a member of a movement, an education justice movement, and the goal of that movement is not to get into positions of administrative power and influence and hang onto it for as long as possible.”
Speaking to reporters on a conference call Wednesday, Sharkey said he’s proud of his accomplishments over the past decade: A “groundbreaking” contract in 2019 that set a plan for a nurse and social worker in every school; successful Springfield lobbying for an elected school board and the repeal of a law that had limited the union’s bargaining rights; organizing charter school workers; and building a new union hall.
“Those were all things that were very much the goals of me and Karen,” Sharkey said.
He acknowledged setbacks along the way, such as the inability to stop former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s massive school closures in 2013 and contentious relationships with City Hall.
Elected in 2010, Sharkey was the union’s vice president under Lewis during the 2012 strike, the first in 25 years. Appointed in 2018 to replace Lewis, he served as president during the 2019 work stoppage and contentious — and sometimes hostile — disputes the past two winters over COVID-19 safety protocols.
“We haven’t won every fight,” he said. “We’ve lost Karen. We’ve been through a lot, the pandemic, we’ve been through this current mayor.”
Sharkey’s tenure also saw a huge increase in CTU’s political spending. The union viewed politics as a mechanism for enacting wider systemic reforms and threw money behind progressive candidates for city, county and state offices — though a wing of union members felt that spending grew out of control.
Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations and wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike, said Sharkey picked up on the “cultural shift” started by Lewis.
“The CTU’s successes come to fruition, the actual material gains, most come into fruition under Jesse Sharkey,” Bruno said. “Rebuilding the union’s effectiveness and raising consciousness begins under Karen Lewis, and the actual material outcomes, the achievements, were best represented in the last contract after the 11-day strike.”
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th), chairman of the City Council’s Education Committee, said Sharkey had “big shoes to fill” following “a revered legend” in Lewis. But he will be remembered for having “fought very hard for his members.”
“He’ll be known as not being afraid to take action, which is evident by three work stoppages and a half, if you want to count this last one,” Scott said.
Lewis and Sharkey’s side of the union, called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, is convening in the coming days to nominate its slate for the union’s late May election. CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates is widely expected to be the caucus’ candidate for the top seat, and Sharkey endorsed her for the job.
“I’ve depended on his leadership. It has been a partnership that has challenged me to be better, to be thoughtful, to take my time,” Davis Gates said. “I still remember when we found out about Karen’s brain tumor, and the deep breaths that he was taking while he was also emotionally reacting to what was happening. And he has been our steady [force] ever since.”
Members First, the opposing caucus the past two elections, has geared up for the new campaign by once again attacking Sharkey and Davis Gates for spending too much time and money on issues outside the typical bread and butter union concerns of pay and benefits, and failing to get along with Lightfoot. Members First said Wednesday that Sharkey’s announcement was an acknowledgement new leadership is needed. He said the decision was in the works for a while and had nothing to do with recent opposition from the rival caucus.
A policy wonk in her own right, Davis Gates taught history at an Englewood school before joining Lewis and Sharkey’s movement on their political team and eventually rising to second in command.
Known not to hold back her words publicly — not unlike Lewis — Davis Gates cringes when asked whether the CPS-CTU relationship would take another hit if she’s chosen as president because of her and Lightfoot’s “dislike” of one another — a portrayal of policy disputes she sees as a stereotype of two angry Black women who can’t get along.
“I am absolutely offended by that line as a person who has worked f------ hard to be where I am and to have the level of influence,” she said. “This is not a petty catfight. ... There are sharp disagreements over the direction of our school district.”
Davis Gates has also been floated as a potential challenger to Lightfoot in the mayoral race. Asked if an election to CTU president would change her plans or remove her from the conversation for mayor, Davis Gates, who has not announced a run, said the focus has been “wrongly on me in a lot of ways.” She notably didn’t deny interest in the office, but she pointed to other CTU-aligned leaders who could run for mayor, even giving a nod to Sharkey as a potential candidate. He said he remains passionate about citywide social justice advocacy and hasn’t “made any decision about what combination of things I’m going to be doing.”
Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th), chairman of the City Council’s Committee on Workforce Development, is a former school counselor and CTU activist. She said she was “saddened” by Sharkey’s decision not to seek reelection.
“Having known Jesse personally for over a decade, I can say that, alongside being a committed history teacher and labor activist, he is a person who cares deeply about his family and their well-being,” she said. “Jesse has ably guided the CTU through many challenges over the past 12 years and I wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick