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Building Union and Community Power During COVID-19

Interview With CTU Chief of Staff Jennifer Johnson

December 14, 2020

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has been leading the way in building a new labor movement – one not just focused on securing fair wages, but also dedicated to social justice unionism. This is a strategy in which organized labor actively fights for the collective interests of a broader public.

In 2019, CTU’s 28,000 members conducted their latest historic strike. They shut down the massive Chicago Public Schools system to demand, in part, smaller class sizes, nurses and counselors in every school, and protections for children and families who are undocumented. The strike was a resounding success, and CTU won on all these counts and more.

Post-strike, the union did not stop its advocacy for the common good. Central to the CTU’s program are the dual goals of providing quality education for children in Chicago Public Schools, the majority of whom are racialized and experience economic insecurity, while simultaneously countering the legacy of systemic racism in schools and the community.

During COVID-19, the CTU has led the fight to put the health and safety of the community first in Chicago, and in so doing exemplifies how fighting for the common good helps build public support for the union’s economic demands. The union continues to show organized labor how collective action can be effectively deployed against entrenched political and economic interests. It was only after CTU threatened yet another strike that Chicago Public Schools went fully remote for 2020.

Jennifer Johnson is Chief of Staff for CTU and has been a central player in the movement for progressive change within labor.

I appreciate you talking with me today, Ms. Johnson. Can you open by telling us about the main principles that guide the CTU’s organizing efforts broadly?

You can’t necessarily separate this particular union leadership from the Caucus [of Rank-and-file Educators], and the Caucus itself was founded around certain core principles: racial, social, and economic justice.

From its foundation, [our Caucus] centered a racial justice frame. We teach 90% students of color in our schools, yet the percentage of Black educators has been on the decline, and that has contributed to the decline of a Black middle class in Chicago, and that’s a problem. The Latinx community is growing, yet it’s underrepresented [in the teaching force]. We also need to tackle both indigenous issues and issues of immigrant rights. And so the Caucus brought that value system to the union office, with Karen Lewis as president. It was unapologetic.

She called this apartheid system out, and so I would say that the union’s take on those principles is we look at issues from a racialized lens. We believe very much in fighting for Black and Brown students to get resources in their schools, and we are trying our best to continue to lift up the voices of members of color.

What social justice values does the union prioritize in its advocacy for students and teachers?

In terms of our advocacy around public schools and students, our refrain for the last 10 years has been that we are fighting for the schools Chicago students deserve. And that is connected to our students being primarily low income, 90% students of color, students who come to school with great traumas, but also great assets. We don’t want to treat it like a deficit lens. But being realistic, our analysis is that the reason our school system is underfunded and underresourced is because these students are mostly Black and Brown and poor, and our political will, our political systems, don’t value full investment.

We’ve focused a lot on student wellbeing and staffing in schools, and so a lot of our work over the years has been to call out the ways in which Chicago Public Schools does not have enough social workers, does not have enough counselors, does not have enough nurses, as a way, as a proxy to speak to, “Yeah, you guys always say you want great test scores, want schools to solve all these problems, but you don’t actually put the personnel in the building to address what kids are bringing to school.” And then on top of that, you need to address what’s happening outside of school. School is not a panacea.

[Students and teachers] should also be getting support to prevent the problems in the first place, and we’ve certainly had an evolution over the 10 years. In our most recent contract [following the 2019 strike], we got the biggest wins around this that we’ve ever had, and so now there are staffing ratios that have to be met over the course of the contract around social workers, nurses, and case managers, [and] special education. We’re monitoring those numbers very closely.

And we’re not necessarily going to get to where we think we need to be, but I think people understand the narrative. They understand and supported our strike this time because that’s the thing we’re fighting for, and we’re not doing that alone. L.A. was fighting for a nurse in every school right before us, and then we’re fighting for a nurse in every school, same idea.

So in other words, you are saying that the public recognizes that the union is advocating for resources and supports that are in collective interest. Can you tell us more about how the union is advocating specifically for vulnerable populations of students and educators in the midst of COVID-19?

We didn’t have to pivot really, because the track that we’ve always been on is one that is connected to the racial and economic analysis. When COVID happened, our first order of business was to protect our members and to protect those students that we serve. And so we advocated loudly and vocally to close the schools, to move to remote work immediately, because the deaths happening were in Black and Brown communities. And at first the numbers in Black communities were particularly high, and then the Latinx community numbers started to jump up and surpass.

We felt it was really important to say safety must come first, that our students are in vulnerable families, their communities are the ones with the highest positivity rates, the highest death rates. We saw students losing family members immediately. There were several students, not a ton, but several students who passed away in our schools, and luckily there were not active members who passed away, but we did have a couple of retirees and then spouses and family members who were getting sick, and it absolutely was concentrated among Black and Brown members as well. Members of our staff also experienced several losses.

And there were patterns with that, and so this was not a shift for us, it really reiterated what we’d already been saying, which is like, “You haven’t invested in Black and Brown communities, you’ve closed mental health clinics. You’re actually trying to close Mercy and Provident Hospital, in the Black South Side right now during global pandemic, right?” And so we’ve stood with KOCO and other community organizations who are calling that out. So, I think that it has shown how right we’ve been, unfortunately, and then the ongoing work has been to envision, how do we think about recovery long term.

Our coalition of community partners’ initial campaign was [focused on] right to recovery. This was labor political folks and community organizations saying, it isn’t just about getting back to where we were, it’s about getting to where we need to be. Because this recovery is going to be so painful already. That led to supporting anti-eviction work, we were already supporting the lift the ban on rent control work, and again, aligning with healthcare outfits who are fighting for the workers who are the most vulnerable.

What are the policies for which CTU is advocating in response to the effects of COVID-19?

We’ve supported the extension of the eviction moratorium. We’ve supported the widespread mass COVID-19 testing, [which] we think is critical. Like I said, the reopen of, or the maintenance of [Chicago city] hospitals. [We also advocated for a] universal basic income.

We are trying to plant flags around tax the rich, and also about how small stimulus checks are not enough. And then we get into police-free schools. So, we have supported the police-free schools movement, to say that money that goes towards police officers should go towards those individuals [like nurses and counsellors] who we already said should be staffed in schools to help our students with the long term recovery and their mental and physical wellbeing.

Those would be the top [political priorities], and then in Illinois, we’re fighting for this ballot initiative in November to change our State income tax policy. We still have a flat income tax, and so there’s a fair tax initiative on the ballot. That’s been a part of all talking points. [Establishing a more progressive income tax system is] a critical measure that will help fund the things that we’re all calling for.

Can you tell me more about the policy advocacy the CTU has been doing during COVID-19? What kind of pressure has CTU been putting on the school district?

We have channels open to the Governor’s Office, we’ve had to intervene, or try to help have the state school board intervene because the relations with the school district have been very difficult. They did not want to close the schools, the mayor did not want to close the schools and we had to say, “We get it. We all want to be in school buildings, but it’s not safe. People are dying.” So, that was the first battle. The school district fought for several days, but luckily did agree to close the schools, and then during the spring of last school year, the fight was for flexibility in an emergency, and the school district and us came to agreements.

It took a while. It wasn’t a quick packaged MOU [Memorandum of Understanding], but we plugged through several rounds of issues over the first few weeks, maybe months, of the closure and came to agreements on evaluation, on bereavement leave, on a flexible schedule. So, in the spring we got them to close [schools] when we got to some agreements.

As the summer progressed, things got more and more difficult, and the school district entrenched around a hybrid plan, and they started to amplify that they wanted to go to this hybrid model. And we told them that all of the things we’re reading are saying that the hybrid model doesn’t actually solve the things that you think it does. It doesn’t really cut down exposure. Sure, it creates social distancing, etcetera, etcetera. We came out pretty quickly and pretty loudly saying, “What we’re seeing in terms of neighborhood positivity and the spread of the virus, does not indicate to us that we should be returning, in any way, into the school buildings.”

And we said, this is an opportunity to staff up, get people more accustomed to working off of the computer, rebuild relationships with families, build into the calendar time to connect with families to help them get up on technology. Let’s advocate for free WiFi, let’s fight to get devices and do this better so that we can stay safe.


The school district spent about a month clinging to a hybrid model. So, we were very vocal. Parents were given a survey asking whether they would enroll their children in a hybrid model and overwhelmingly, they said no; 80% of Black and Brown parents said no…


Around that same time we also said we were going to call a house of delegates meeting. Somehow that got leaked out, and that we were going to call for a strike vote. And so the day after that happened, the city relented and said, “We’ll go remote.”


So it sounds like it was the threat of the strike that really resulted in the victory. The parent surveys indicated that there was a strong desire for a remote model of learning, especially among Black and Brown families who face the highest risks of COVID-19. Yet it sounds like the district didn’t respond directly to the survey data from parents, but instead decided to close the schools in response to the threat of a union strike.

The city and the district will never admit that, but that is our analysis: that [the strike threat is] what pushed things over the edge. If you’re not going to have employees to run it, how are you going to run it? And they know now that our strike threat is not a threat, it’s a promise, you know?

What are some of the major barriers and obstacles that you’re encountering in your organizing work?

It’s mostly ideological. The school district is led by a former educator and principal, but who is accountable to the mayor, and so she absolutely does what she needs to do to maintain her job. And she has taken the position that the school year this year needs to be rigorous and normal, even though we’re not in a normal period of time. And so I see both the school district officials as ideologically invested in traditional educational policy.

They want to create [a forced and ineffective version of] accountability rather than [the] empathy, flexibility, and grace [that they were talking about in the spring]. That’s out the window now. It’s accountability, accountability, accountability, and so our students are online six hours a day, our teachers are working seven hours schedules, regular school day schedules, and people are burning out and it’s only the first week.

I am curious: would you say that this sort of ideological position among policymakers in the district is similar to what you’re seeing in L.A., New York City, Boston, and other locations around the country?

Absolutely. It’s just that here in Chicago, this neoliberal corporate frame of education comes out of the mouths of Democrats rather than people who are traditionally right wing. In L.A. the privatization fight is more visible and sharper because they have just such visible billionaires. Our billionaires are a little sneakier. Like Ken Griffin isn’t a household name in the same way that Eli Broad is out there.

We absolutely are facing the same ideological battle.

What does the union believe is needed in going forward in order to ensure the health and safety of students and teachers in a post COVID-19 school?

Post-COVID. Wow, I hope we can get there…

Longer term, we need deep investment, federal dollars, state dollars. We need that fair tax, local dollars. We need funds in order to make our schools the robust, fully staffed places that people will come back to, because this financial crisis is only going to get worse as eviction moratoriums expire, as those two hospitals on the South Side are closing, as unemployment continues to rise, and the federal response is inadequate. If we can’t turn those things around our schools are looking at loss of enrollment, which means loss of jobs, which means loss of union members.

And none of us want that. We want to be in a place where we’re set up to build the school district that we’ve been fighting for in the last 10 years. And I think we feel glad that we did go on this hard strike and get the contract that we got, because it does create financial protections for our members. Layoffs, though, would be devastating and would mean Chicago public schools could look very different five years from now, and so I hope that we get a change in federal government that helps align with what we’ve seen. We’ve seen a largely good response at the state level, [although] there’s definitely critiques.

We’ve been losing students for the last 10 years or more. Partly it’s the charters, [and] partly [because] Black families [have been pushed] out of the city. I think it’s over 250,000 Black people who have been pushed out of the city [due to gentrification] in the last 15 years. When you close 50 schools, you destabilize communities, you remove the mental health services, you don’t have affordable housing. And so we’ve lost Black people, which means we’ve lost Black students, which means we’ve lost enrollment. And then COVID is now exacerbating that.

Ms. Johnson, I want to thank you for your time and for talking with me today. The efforts of yourself and CTU to build a more powerful, more impactful Labor Movement in Chicago and beyond are necessary and important. I look forward to seeing how CTU continues to act as a movement leader in the next chapter of the struggles that are before us.
Rhiannon Maton, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Foundations and Social Advocacy at the State University of New York at Cortland. Maton researches educator activism and union organizing in the educational justice movement. She is a member of the United University Professions and the grassroots union caucus, Member Action Coalition. She has been published in a range of books and journals, including Critical Education, Curriculum Inquiry, and Gender, Work and Organization.


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