Chicago Teachers Union

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Chicago Teachers Union
Members25,000 (2018)
Head unionJesse Sharkey (president)
Key peopleMargaret Haley
Jacqueline B. Vaughn
Karen Lewis
Office location1901 West Carroll Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60612
CountryUnited States

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is a labor union representing teachers, paraprofessionals, and clinicians in the Chicago public school system. The union has consistently fought for improved pay, benefits, and job security for its members, and it has resisted efforts to vary teacher pay based on performance evaluations. It has also pushed for improvements in the Chicago schools, and since its inception argued that its activities benefited students as well as teachers.[1]

The CTU united several teachers' organizations in Chicago in the wake of a teachers' revolt against banks during the Great Depression. It was chartered in 1937 as Local 1 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in which it played a founding role. It was the largest and most active AFT Local until the 1960s.[2] The CTU won collective bargaining rights in 1966 and conducted several strikes during the 1970s and 1980s. In September 2012, the union began its first strike in 25 years.

The CTU is also affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Chicago Federation of Labor, and the AFL-CIO. It has more than 25,000 members. Current officers come from the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, elected in 2010 to replace the longstanding United Progressive Caucus. From that point until her 2018 retirement, Karen Lewis was president. Through a successors election the new officer slate became: President Jesse Sharkey, Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, Recording Secretary Michael Brunson and Financial Secretary Maria Moreno.[3][4]


Chicago Teachers Federation[edit]

The CTU originated from the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF), an organization of women elementary school teachers founded in 1897. In its first few years, it ran a successful campaign to increase teacher pay, and its membership grew to 2500.[5] In 1900, the CTF elected Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley as its officers, deciding to pay them the same wages as those made by teachers.[5]

Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin, two early leaders of the CTF, prompted the investigation of corporate tax evaders as a means of restoring the city's funds.

Under the leadership of Haley and Goggin, the CTF struggled for women's suffrage, for women's rights within the labor movement, and for the right of woman workers to earn as much as their male counterparts.[6][7] The CTF also launched a successful campaign against corporate tax evasion, the compensation for which was used to pay back salaries upon which the city had reneged.[5]

In 1902, the CTF joined the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL). It was the first time that a teachers' group had affiliated with a larger labor organization.[8] In 1916, Haley and the CTF helped to found the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in which the CTF became Local 1.[6] However, the Chicago Board of Education, led by Jacob Loeb, had recently passed a rule against teacher unions:[9]

Membership by teachers in labor unions or in organizations of teachers affiliated with a trade union or a federation or association of trade unions, as well as teachers' organizations which have officers, business agents, or other representatives who are not members of the teaching force, is inimical to proper discipline, prejudicial to the efficiency of the teaching force, and detrimental to the welfare of the public school system. Therefore, such membership, affiliation, or representation is hereby prohibited.

This rule, which became known as the Loeb rule, further stated that teachers would be fired unless they stated in writing that they did not belong to any such organization.[10] The Loeb rule allowed the city to fire 68 teachers, including the CTF leadership, who refused to leave the union.[9] By 1917, the CTF was forced to withdraw from both the CFL and the AFT.[5][6]

Subsequent passage of the Otis rule placed education in the hands of a centralized Board of Education. However, the board was still appointed by city politicians. In the coming years, the city and School Board were accused of rampant corruption, particularly in connection with two-time mayor William Hale Thompson.[11] Many CPS employees were appointed by the Mayor, and a 1931 study found that Chicago spent more money than any other major city on operations costs outside of education.[12] The proliferation of bureaucracy was a serious concern: when the Elementary Teachers Union formed in 1928, one of its stated goals was "freeing of teachers from the increasingly intolerable burden of red tape and clerical work.[13]

Great Depression[edit]

Chicago teachers became exceptionally militant during the Great Depression, when teachers and many of their students faced extreme poverty and miserable school conditions.[14][15] Particularly in the inner city, classrooms were undersupplied and overcrowded. "Too many city classrooms still resemble enlarged prison cells," according to a 1931 report.[16] The city neglected to pay its teachers on 37 out of 46 paydays.[5] Teachers also claimed of egregious class sizes and poorly maintained schools.[17][18] Most stayed in the classroom teaching, although one committed suicide.[19] Teachers organized independently to procure food and clothing for their students, giving large sums from their own shrinking paychecks.[20]

Contested municipal reforms[edit]

Once again, supporters of the public schools (including Haley) launched a campaign against local tax dodgers, who they said had owed taxes on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of new construction.[21] This time, business leaders retaliated, in February 1932 forming a group called the Citizen's Committee on Public Expenditures (CCPE), which pushed the city to cut its education budget.[17] The banks, which controlled millions of dollars worth of city tax anticipation warrants, announced (and possessed) de facto control over city policy. In a statement published in the Saturday Evening Post, railroad president and CCPE secretary Fred Sargent wrote that banks "positively will not lend money for any municipal function which does not have our active support. This has been a powerful lever in dealing with the really small number of recalcitrants in public office who still cling to a faith in a Santa Claus." And: "business men of Chicago have learned their lesson. We shall not again let the mechanism run wild."[22] Sargent and the CCPE were accused of "financial fascism" for taking control of the city government through financial blackmail "with little regard for the needs of the masses and their children."[23]

Teachers unhappy[edit]

Teachers, with support from students and parents, began an escalating campaign to restore funding to the schools and paychecks to the teachers. They believed that Chicago's banks had access to millions of dollars in unpaid taxes that might balance the city's budget; they were angry about the CCPE's explicitly anti-school agenda, and they were also provoked by a $90 million bank bailout from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation that did nothing to help the schools.[15] More generally, teachers were alarmed by an apparent corporate attack on education; they believed that the nation's ruling class wanted to dismantle education for the public and reserve it only for the wealthy.[24]

Protests and petitions mounted from 1931–1932. Students planned a solidarity demonstration, and although many were convinced to stay in school, 13,000 students actually walked out.[25] Teachers became frustrated with union leaders who urged restraint for the teachers and argued amongst each other; new rank-and-file organizations emerged. Historian John F. Lyons describes these groups as key in the development of solidarity among the city's teachers:

Many began to see the weak and divided position of the unions as the main reason for lack of success in the dispute. Accordingly, between 1931 and 1933, ordinary teachers founded a number of temporary groups to unify their ranks and actively pursue their demands. In November 1931, the South Side Teachers organized a number of mass meetings, publicity campaigns, and voting drives, and appealed without success to various teachers' unions to cooperate in framing a legislative program. Three more rank-and-file teachers' organizations emerged in 1932: The Civic Education Association of Chicago, initially organized by teachers from Senn High School on the North Side, aimed "to bring all of the teachers of Chicago, organized and unorganized, into one effective unit." The Chicago Teacher Voter Association set out with the sole aim of campaigning for politicians sympathetic to the teachers' plight. The South Side Teachers called for a boycott of stores, hotels, and other businesses that had participated in the tax strike.[26]

Teachers increasingly began to feel singled out for bad treatment by the city. This feeling was amplified in March 1933 when teachers learned that, as teacher pay was being further cut by 15%, school janitors had received a secret raise. The city announced furthermore that on the next pay day all municipal employees except teachers would be paid.[27]

Teachers revolt[edit]

In April 1933, teachers targeted banks in the downtown Loop, which they held "financially responsible" for the $30 million deficit in teacher payments.[28] On April 24, 1933 (the beginning of spring break), thousands of teachers entered bank offices and began causing mayhem. They chanted "Pay us! Pay us!"[15] At City National Bank, they chanted "We want Dawes! We Want Dawes!", referring to bank chairman and recent US vice president Charles G. Dawes. Dawes appeared, surrounded by guards, and attempted to appease the mob over shouts.[29] Police, who had also experienced a number of payless paydays, were reluctant to interfere.[29]

Teachers conducted more 'raids' on 27 April, demanding of bankers: "Pay your taxes!" and "We want food!" After joining city meetings en masse, they proceeded to the Chicago Title and Trust Company, which held $10 million of property taxes in escrow. President Holman Pettibone spoke to the crowd from a second-story window and attempted to convince them that the company owed nothing to the city.[30] (In fact, Chicago Title and Trust did possess $10 million of unpaid property tax money, held in escrow accounts for tax evaders; Pettibone argued that the bank could not legitimately hand them over to the city.)[31] Here, they clashed directly with police and bankers; several teachers were beaten and a large plate-glass window was broken.[32] The National Education Association telegraphed bankers directly, threatening to move the organization's convention (with its 10,000 attendees) away from Chicago—a potential blow for the upcoming World's Fair.)[33]

In early May, bankers agreed to buy tax anticipation warrants from the city. (Practically, this meant the banks were loaning the city money.) Bankers issued a collective statement suggesting that further demonstrations from teachers would provoke them to reverse their decision. Mayor Edward J. Kelly echoed the statement.[34] Yet in July, the school board announced further pay cuts, provoking demonstrations from tens of thousands of teachers.[15] 25,000 people gathered on July 21, 1933, for a "Save Our Schools" protest. Banners read "Don't let the bankers cheat your children out of an education" and "Gratitude—months with no pay—now fired".[35] Teachers marched on Grant Park and tore down a Century of Progress banner anticipating the coming World's Fair. Teachers and parents also sought legal injunctions against the Board of Education. The School Board nevertheless fired hundreds of teachers in September, leaving remaining teachers to teach more classes—of larger size. In October, the city received a $35 million federal loan, which it used to issue back pay.[17]

Consolidation and charter[edit]

Chicago teachers had formed several different unions, some of which were still segregated by gender.[36] The unrest in the early 1930s served to unite these groups, which previously had difficulty cooperating.[37] Chicago teachers played an active role in the AFT and retained their status as Local 1. In 1937, Local 1 battled New York's Local 5 over whether the AFT would remain in the American Federation of Labor (AFL) or join the newer and more inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).[38] (New York's Local 5 was at that time the Teachers' Union, which was soon expelled from the AFT after accusations of communism, and replaced by the more moderate United Federation of Teachers.) Soon after the convention (which decided to stay in the AFL), the Chicago Teachers Union was officially chartered by the AFT as an amalgamation of Chicago's multiple teacher unions in Chicago.[39][40] At this point about 3,500 teachers were members of the new Local.[41] By September, it was the largest teachers union in the U.S., with over 8500 members.[42] The CTF, still under Haley's leadership, remained separate for some years, based on concerns that the CTU would disproportionately represent the interests of males and high school teachers.[43]

Before collective bargaining: 1937–1967[edit]

When the CTU formed, teachers had become disillusioned about their status as a special class of workers. Some elementary school teachers were paid less than janitors, and more teachers came to agree that they experienced discrimination because they were female. (Meanwhile, male teachers felt shortchanged and emasculated.) Teachers also resented the constantly increasing bureaucratic control over their classrooms.[44]


The CTU sought collective bargaining rights early on, but Superintendent William Johnson refused to grant them.[41] The union also targeted evaluations (for teachers who wanted to become principals) that it said were administered in a corrupt fashion.[45] By 1939, the CTU had more than doubled in size, to 8,500 members, and organized its members for actions such as mass letter-writing.[46]

In 1948, amid small-scale sickouts and walkouts, the CTU authorized a strike when teachers experienced still more 'payless paydays' due to city neglect.[47][48] The strike was averted hours before it was scheduled to begin, when the school board approved a new budget and announced that the checks due to the teachers had been mailed with all possible haste.[49]

In addition to perennial requests for salary increases, the CTU began demanding more direct changes to Chicago's public schools. It asked the Chicago Police Department to station an officer in each of Chicago's 43 high schools; CPD refused.[50] The CTU continued to pursue the school violence issue, insisting that teachers were being attacked by dangerous youths.[51][52] During this period the union also sought shorter hours for students and teachers.[53][54] It also called attention to a mounting teacher shortage, citing over a hundred classrooms without regular or substitute teachers.[55]

During this period, Fewkes and the CTU consistently opposed merit pay policies, proposals which would vary teachers salaries based on evaluations.[56][57][58][59]

John Fewkes and anticommunism[edit]

The CTU's first president was John Fewkes.[56] Fewkes had been the most prominent leader of "Voluntary Emergency Committee" (VEC), a male-dominated group that formed in 1933 and gained prominence by advocating and coordinating militant action. The VEC had been aggressive but not radical, and explicitly sought to exclude communists.[60]

The union, urged on by Fewkes,[56] participated in the AFL's anti-communist purges, and in 1941 voted 5,258 to 892 to expel the New York City Teachers Union, the New York College Teachers Union and Philadelphia Teachers Union from the AFT.[61] The three expelled Locals were large, representing about one quarter of the AFT's members, but the CTU was larger, and its votes were decisive in accomplishing the expulsion.[62][63]

Fewkes remained CTU President for most of this period. He left the CTU in 1943 to serve as AFT president. In 1944, he took a position with the federal War Production Board.[64] By 1947, he had returned to the CTU for a second term as its president.[56] In 1950, the CTU governing board approved a constitutional amendment to remove limitations on presidential terms; John Fewkes was thereby allowed to run again, and remained CTU president until 1966.[56][65]

Demographics and civil rights[edit]

Most of Chicago's public school teachers were white single women. Public school teacher was also the most common occupation for black women in Chicago, who were treated by CPS as second-class job candidates: qualified black high school teachers worked in elementary schools or as substitutes; some could not get jobs at all.[66] Teachers came from a shifting mix of white-collar and blue-collar families.[67]

Campaign for collective bargaining[edit]

The CTU intensified its campaign for collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, staging huge demonstrations at the Chicago Board of Education.[68] Pressure increased after the New York recognized collective bargaining rights for the UFT in 1961,[69] and the CTU threatened an illegal strike in 1963–1964 if the School Board would not grant it the same status.[70] The city averted a strike by agreeing to negotiate,[71] and, after long delays (including litigation from a rival union, the Chicago Education Association),[72] the CTU became the official bargaining agent of Chicago teachers in April 1966.[73]

Internal politics and organization[edit]

Caucus of Rank and File Educators[edit]

In 2010, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), led by President Karen Lewis gained control over the CTU by winning 60% of the vote in a run-off election.[74] CORE ran an aggressive grassroots organizing campaign, and took a strong stance against school privatization.[75] CORE accused the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC) of capitulating to corporate interests, silencing dissent within the union, and collaborating with the city to prevent union outreach at schools.[76]

CORE quickly took action to distinguish itself from UPC, reaffirm its grassroots support, and launch a campaign to defend public education. The new leadership cut pay for union officers and used the savings to expand outreach.[77] Former CTU member John A. Ostenburg criticized Lewis and CORE in 2011 for inexperience and political recklessness, arguing that they will not successfully be able to combat Mayor Rahm Emanuel's entrenched power.[78] CORE represented a major bloc of dissent at the 2012 AFT convention, and held signs in protest of Race to the Top during a speech from President, then Vice President, Joe Biden.[79]

2018 merger with Charter Union Local[edit]

In spring of 2018, the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Association of Charter Teachers and Staff Local 4343 voted to merge, with the charter educators forming a new division within the CTU. On December 4, 2018, CTU members at the Acero charter school network initiated the first strike at a unionized charter school in US history. The strike ended December 9, 2018, in a major victory with the strikers who won sanctuary school protections for their students, enforceable reductions in class size and parity with the existing pay scale at district-run schools.

Collective bargaining and strikes[edit]

Strikes 1968–1987[edit]

Chicago teachers went on strike multiple times in the 1970s and 1980s:[80]

  • 1968: "Concerned FTBs" (long-term substitutes) and others engage in wildcat strikes against school segregation and racism—particularly systemic unfairness in the certification, hiring, and promotion of black teachers.[81]
  • 1969: Two-day strike results in salary increases, teacher aides, and class size maximum.
  • 1971: Four-day strike results in salary increases and full health benefits.
  • 1973: Two strikes, of 12 and 11 days, yield improved salary, benefits, preparation time, supplies, and class sizes.
  • 1979-1980: Multiple strikes over a payless payday during holiday break in 1979, results in salary increase and improved sick leave and maternity/paternity leave.
  • 1984: Four-day strike results in medical care increase and PAC checkoff.
  • 1985: Two-day strike for salary and sick leave.
  • 1987: Record-breaking 19-day strike under CTU President Jacqueline B. Vaughn wins raises and improvements to health care.

2012 strike[edit]

Striking members of the Chicago Teachers Union marching through the Chicago Loop on September 11, 2012.

Under the leadership of CORE, the CTU pushed hard in negotiations with the city. Early on, the CTU made the decision to decline an offer of pay increases combined with layoffs.[77] When the city would not agree to the CTU's core demands, including an expansion of programs like art and music at the city's most underfunded high schools, CTU members voted overwhelmingly (90% of teachers and 98% of those who cast ballots) to authorize a strike.[82]

On September 10, 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union began a strike[83] after CTU President Lewis declared that negotiations with the city were not succeeding.[84] This strike was the CTU's first since 1987, and the first strike ever for many of the teachers involved.[85][86] Regulations required them to make contract negotiations an issue in the strike, and the teachers indeed sought better pay, better benefits, and protections for teachers who lose their jobs due to school closures.[82]

The striking teachers also wanted to call attention to a number of education issues, particularly what they defined as a broad attack on public schooling by corporate privatizers.[87] In particular they demand a decrease in high-stakes testing for students, and an increase in music, art, and gym programs available at public schools.[88] They also called for smaller class sizes and paid preparation time.[82]

On September 11, 2012, the Service Employees International Union Local 1 informed companies that some of their members might go on strike with the teachers.[89]

On September 14, 2012, the teachers reached a tentative agreement with the city, which included preferences for teachers who have been laid off due to a school closing to be hired in another school, and student test scores having less of a role in teacher evaluations than the city had originally planned.[90] This tentative agreement did not hold, however, and the strike continued, at which point Mayor Emanuel announced his intention to seek a legal injunction, forcing teachers back to work.[91] On September 17, 2012, Mayor Emanuel's efforts to end the strike stalled as the walkout went into the second week.[92] Delegates from the CTU voted to end the strike on September 18, 2012.[93][94] Students began their return to the schools on Wednesday, September 19, 2012. The CTU was still required to ratify the contract with the Union's 29,000 teachers.[95]

Following the end of the strike, leaders of the Union held town hall meetings in major U.S. cities to underscore the belief that community collaboration is key in creating beneficial changes in education, as opposed to top-down imposition by governors or mayors. The Union planned to hold town hall meetings in Chicago, Cleveland, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, St. Paul, and Tampa.[96]

2015–2016 contract dispute[edit]

Following the expiration of the contract in June 2015, CPS teachers continued to work without a contract for a year while the union and district negotiated. In September 2016, union members voted overwhelmingly to strike if an agreement could not be reached, setting a deadline of October 11. Minutes before midnight on October 10, the district and union reached a tentative agreement, avoiding a strike.[97]

2019 strike[edit]

Chicago teachers marching during a demonstration on October 14, 2019.

After the expiration of the CPS contract with CTU in June 2019, a contract dispute emerged.[98] Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders spoke at a rally hosted by CTU and SEIU Local 73 in preparation of the strike on September 24. On September 27, 2019, CTU members voted to authorize a potential strike starting on October 17 if a contract deal is not reached.[99] The union's top priorities in contract negotiations are reducing classroom size and increasing the number of support staff (such as nurses and social workers).[100] On October 16, 2019 CPS cancelled classes for October 17, 2019 in anticipation of the CTU strike.[101] CTU delegates officially voted to go on strike hours afterwards.[102] Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that CPS would not add any makeup days for any school days lost during the strike, stating that "There’s no plan to make up any days...We want to make sure we get a deal done." At the time, Illinois state law required that all school districts in Illinois include at least 176 days in the school year. Lightfoot's decision broke this mandate, as the 2019–2020 school year was exactly 176 days long. Additionally, it was noted that teachers could lose pay if the strike days were not added back to the district calendar.[103]

On Thursday, October 17, 2019, teachers took to picket lines early in the morning, and the CTU stated that it planned to resume negotiations with the city at Malcolm X College.[104] Later that afternoon, CPS announced that classes had been cancelled for the following day, as even though negotiations seemed to be progressing, there was no foreseeable agreement in the near feature. On Friday, October 18, 2019, teachers continued on the second day of the strike, meaning that students had attended school two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) out of the five days from October 14–18 (CPS students did not go to school on Monday due to the observance of Columbus Day).[105] That weekend, CTU and CPS continued negotiating. While both sides noted progress over Saturday, Lightfoot noted that she would be "...very surprised if classes [would] open on Monday."[106] The following day, Sunday, October 20, 2019, CPS canceled school for Monday the 21st. Even though tentative agreements had been made on eight points, CPS canceled school for Monday as CTU had not voted to end the strike yet.[107]

On Monday, October 21, 2019, CTU members entered the third school day and second calendar week of the strike. Negotiations between CPS and CTU continued, and Lightfoot sent the union a letter asking them to end the strike while negotiations continued. CTU president Jesse Sharkey noted that "...the letter [from Lightfoot] I received today dashed my hope for a quick settlement." That afternoon, Mayor Lightfoot canceled CPS classes for Tuesday, stating that "...CTU has not scheduled a House of Delegates vote, which would be necessary to end their strike...As a result, it will not be possible to hold classes tomorrow."[108] The next day, Tuesday, October 22, 2019, negotiations continued, and 2020 democratic presidential primary candidate Elizabeth Warren joined the striking teachers. Later, Mayor Lightfoot canceled CPS classes for Wednesday, October 23, stating once again that "...CTU has not scheduled a House of Delegates vote, which would be necessary to end their strike...As a result, it will not be possible to hold classes tomorrow."[109] It was noted that on Tuesday, negotiations appeared to be "at an impasse", and the majority of CTU's 40-person bargaining team was not expected to return to the negotiating table. CTU President Sharkey expressed that the proposed contract did "...not have adequate enforcement mechanisms on staffing."[110] After negotiations had ended Tuesday evening, several issues remained unresolved, such as class-size caps, the duration of the contract, salaries, and health benefits. At this point, teachers planned to keep the strike going until at least Thursday the 24th, or longer if necessary.[111] On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, negotiations continued at Malcolm X College. Teachers only picketed in front of schools until 8:00 a.m. local time. Then, they proceeded to rally in the downtown Loop and converge in front of the city hall.[112] Lightfoot presented her 2020 city budget plan Wednesday evening, at the end of the fifth school day of the strike. Emails and phone calls were disseminated to students and parents, informing them that classes were canceled for Thursday, October 24, as both the CTU and CPS still did not expect an agreement any time soon.[113] The following day, on Thursday the 24th, teachers returned to the picket lines at 7:00 a.m., and the president of the Flight Attendant's Union, Sara Nelson, was expected to join the striking teachers to show support. CTU also scheduled civil disobedience training for its members at the CTU headquarters at 3:00 p.m., suggesting a prolonged strike.[114]


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  2. ^ Lyons, Teachers and Reform (2008), pp. 1–2. "In the early years of the twentieth century, the center of teacher unionism was found in Chicago. [...] The CTU attracted a majority of Chicago teachers and remained the largest and most influential AFT local until the 1960s."
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  • Lyons, John F. Teachers and Reform: Chicago Public Education 1929–1970. Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-252-03272-1.

External links[edit]