Faced with what it sees as increasing pressure on public education and issues critical to its members, the Chicago Teachers Union has decided to wade directly into Chicago and Illinois politics with its own independent political organization.
The move comes as range of issues such as charters schools, poverty, the state’s minimum wage, TIF reform and more are increasingly at the forefront of political campaigns and voter’s minds in Chicago and across the state.
However, from the CTU’s perspective, the creation of an independent political organization, or IPO, isn't simply about backing particular candidates or enacting legislation. Instead, it’s about moving the needle in political terms away from trends such as education privatization and a culture of mandated school testing and towards what the union sees as policies that matter to working families and its 30,000 members.
At a Wednesday meeting of delegates, the CTU adopted a resolution authorizing union leadership to pursue a slate of activities geared toward building a more concrete political infrastructure and pursuing an ambitious plan of action around its objectives. These include “developing, electing and supporting” candidates for office, along with leading “strong electoral and legislative campaigns”.
Brandon Johnson, CTU’s interim political director, told Ward Room that while the IPO is clearly still in it’s planning stages, the union fully understands the scope of tasks it has decided to take on.
“Within the next couple of months, we’ll begin to see a more complete rollout [of the IPO],” he said. “When it’s further developed, you’re going to see a more fully staffed operation with a director, a board, canvassers and more. We’ll have people assigned to communities and neighborhoods we wish to work in, along with folks assigned to things like recruiting future candidates and fundraising.”
For Chicago, direct political activity on behalf of the CTU carries a potentially heavy footprint, particularly in a city where progressive political organizations are often smaller, less well funded and struggle to work together effectively.
The CTU’s plan includes not only finding candidates that share its agenda, but also organizing around issues, knocking on doors and holding elected officials accountable, particularly those the union sees as not making good on their promise to support progressive policies.
That could matter for, say, aldermen in City Council who are on the fence about an issue like TIF reform or an elected school board.
“The IPO’s strength would occur twofold: you would have resources and infrastructure and go back to those same aldermen who reneged on the interests of the people and flood those communities in a necessary way—whether it’s canvassing, or making phone calls or community forums,” said Johnson. “Or, it could call for candidates who emerge out of that discussion and then be trained and prepared to run against those individuals who are, at the very least, hypocritical in their response to the voice of the people.”
In the past, the CTU has engaged in a more limited role when it comes to politics, endorsing candidates and providing support on a more ad hoc basis. For example, at the same meeting where it adopted the IPO resolution, the delegates also decided to endorse Will Guzzardi for state representative in Illinois 39th District.
But, Johnson said, in many ways the union felt it had no other choice than to become politically involved in a more formal, structured way than in the past. The move towards an IPO was driven primarily from the ground up within the membership, he said.
As a result, union leadership recognizes the need to develop both effectiveness and credibility out of the gate if the new endeavor is going to effect real change on behalf of its members and those who share its goals.
"Certainly, in this operation, we’re owning the fact in Chicago that people see the CTU as a leading voice for justice,” he said. “We do not take this lightly, but we’ve proven that we’re not backing down to political parties that are dead set on destroying the very gains many people have fought for.”