In June, thousands of CPS teachers and their supporters turned out for a march to support teachers' calls for a new, fair contract. Credit: Photo by Max Herman


After legendary Chicago Teachers Union president Jacqueline Vaughn died in 1994, her successor, Tom Reece, adopted a low profile and built a less challenging relationship with the school district, then led by CEO Paul Vallas.

A year later, Springfield slashed the union’s bargaining powers as part of the 1995 law that returned unfettered control of the school system to the mayor, then Richard M. Daley. (Specifically, the law eliminated a grassroots School Board nominating committee, which had been giving Daley candidates he didn’t want.)

The lost bargaining powers included class size, layoffs, charter schools, privatization of services, the academic calendar and hours of instruction.

Years later, Reece’s cooperative relationship with CPS would come back to haunt him. In 2001 he was defeated for re-election by Deborah Lynch, a leader in the push to expand teacher union concerns beyond bread-and-butter issues to questions of policy and instructional practice.

Through their efforts to widen the union’s scope, Lynch and the Proactive Teachers Caucus, or PACT, planted the seeds for the CTU of today. In a collection of essays published by the left-wing magazine Jacobin, current CTU President Karen Lewis recalls that she joined PACT in time to support Lynch’s win.

See ”The new law,” Catalyst September 1995 and “Deborah Lynch and the making of an upset,” Catalyst September 2001


Though Lynch’s tenure proved short and divisive, a new cadre of union leaders regrouped with a mission to connect CTU organizing to broader issues of social justice and build alliances with like-minded unions and community groups.

They created the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). Initially, CORE was a small study group trying to fight school turnarounds, privatization and closings, Lewis and CORE co-founder Jackson Potter told Rethinking Schools.

The larger goal was to shift the CTU from a traditional, staff-driven union focused on teachers pay and benefits to a member-driven body that would publicly weigh in on controversial issues like testing and school privatization.

CORE’s first big victory came when Lewis won the CTU presidency in 2010. The next win was even bigger. In 2011, Illinois lawmakers set a high bar for a CTU strike, requiring approval from 75 percent of its members, not just those voting on a strike authorization. Many observers and CTU members alike thought this threshold would be insurmountable.

But CORE’s organizing strength and teachers’ frustration with Mayor Rahm Emanuel did the trick. More than 90 percent of membership voted to authorize the first CTU strike in 25 years. In announcing the strike, union leaders insisted compensation was less an issue than protecting displaced teachers and minimizing the ties between student test scores and teacher evaluations.

After seven days on the picket lines, CTU agreed to a deal that kept the share of teacher evaluation reliant on test scores to 25 percent, the minimum required by state law. It also guaranteed some laid-off teachers would have preference to be rehired. While there is disagreement over who won in these negotiations, Emanuel was the clear public relations loser.

CTU then allied with grassroots community groups to fight school closings, with less success. Though the district granted reprieves to a handful of schools considered for closure, it went on to shutter 49 schools in 2013.

Most recently, CTU put significant energy into the municipal elections. Karen Lewis briefly explored a mayoral run before illness forced her to abandon the idea.

But other CTU members took inspiration from her interest. Eight educators ran for City Council seats last year, and one, Susan Sadlowski Garza, won. Perhaps more significantly, CTU partnered with SEIU Healthcare and two grassroots organizing groups to launch United Working Families, an independent political organization. The group supported candidates who favored an elected school board and a $15 city minimum wage. Nine of the 18 candidates it endorsed won.

See “New union, new day,” Catalyst November 2010 and “Chicago Teachers Union: from classroom to City Council?” Catalyst, November 2014


Watch for more teacher unions across the country to embrace “social justice unionism,” as researchers call unions’ more explicit push for greater economic and racial equity. Since winning the CTU presidency in 2010, CORE members have built a network of about 20 like-minded teacher union caucuses across the country. A few have already won leadership spots.

And the Chicago union’s 2012 strike has encouraged other locales to borrow CTU’s playbook. This week saw the conclusion of a week-long strike in Seattle. “We were using the Chicago strike as a model,” Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp told the Seattle Times.

As in Chicago in 2012, the Seattle teachers union connected with community concerns about standardized testing to argue against attaching tests to teacher evaluations. The new contract takes student test scores out of teacher evaluation altogether. “There’s a mood shifting out there among teachers and parents about what’s going on in the schools, and who has a say over it,” said Knapp.

See “CTU president Karen Lewis speaks up,” WBEZ February 2015 and “Teacher unions tackle social justice to improve schools, communities,” Catalyst June 2015

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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