Fighting for Teachers, Children, and Their Parents: Building a Social Justice Teachers’ Union—Part II
By Brandon Johnson
Before running for office and winning the election as mayor of Chicago in 2023, Brandon Johnson worked as a middle school social studies teacher at Jenner Academy Elementary School and George Westinghouse College Prep, both part of the Chicago Public School systems. He became an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union in 2011 and helped organize the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. In this essay from Mark Warren and David Goodman’s Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!: Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement, he tells the story of CTU’s transformation from a traditional “wages and hours” union to a social justice union working with families and communities of color for racial equity and justice. This is part two of his story. Read part one.
In 2012 the CTU went on strike for the first time in twenty-five years. We prepared our members to take this step by, first, making the case that we could better protect our profession by defending public education and our children. Second, we put forward a real plan for what schools needed to look like, and we effectively identified those people, including the mayor, who stood in the way. Finally, we began to raise awareness of the inequities that many people said couldn’t be fixed but we refused to accept. As a result, our members realized that we needed to withhold our labor in order to beat back the mayor’s proposal that would hurt both teachers and students. The mayor proposed high-stakes evaluations for teachers, cuts to benefits, and removal of the cap on class sizes, and he refused to respond to our demands for a more well-rounded education for students.
The 2012 strike became about, How do you make sure that the dignity of teaching—our humanity as educators, paraprofessionals, clerks, nurses, and social workers—is respected? How do we make this fight for education about what people ultimately deserve? And, finally, who should pay for it?
A key to our success was winning parents to our side. Parents and community groups joined us on picket lines, and polls showed that a majority of parents supported our demands. This was unprecedented. Meanwhile, people forget that CTU members are also parents of children in the public schools in Chicago. I myself live in Austin, on the west side of Chicago, which has been deemed the most violent neighborhood in Chicago. We were overwhelmed by the support of parents, and we are still humbled by the continued support and the belief that parents have in our work.
The strike was a success. We stopped merit pay, protected benefits and retirement security, saved the cap on class sizes, and pushed the board to offer greater variety in subjects for students, including expanded access to art, music, and physical education.
The strike had a big political impact beyond the contract. The larger success was to bring community and labor together to fight for public schools and the rights of workers. Our strike inspired teachers to go on strike in other school districts in Illinois, even in some of the more affluent areas. The strike led to stricter accountability for charter expansion. It also led to teachers organizing in charter schools. Meanwhile, bus operators and train operators prepared to take strike votes too. We elected progressive members to the city council as a result of the 2012 strike.
The strike also expanded democracy. The state legislature passed a law to make the school board an elected body, ending mayoral control, although the governor failed to sign it. Funding education has become a priority in the state by calling for the rich to pay their fair share in taxes.
You cannot fix twenty-five years of bad policy in one contract. You must continue to fight. That’s why we led a one-day strike on April 1, 2015, that shut down the entire city. It included university professors and activists from Black Lives Matter, bus drivers, and train operators. In 2012 we showed it was possible to wage a fight and win. People recognized that you can actually build a movement and fight back against corporate greed and politicians who are protecting the interests of the 1 percent.
An Attack on Black Labor
As I recall, Dr. King said that the enemies of the Negro are the enemies of labor. That speaks to me and explains why I work for the CTU. If advocates for civil rights and labor rights were to ever work together, what enormous potential we would have.
When you look at the attack on public education, it’s not just an attack on the right to public accommodations. It’s also an attack on black labor. In 1995, when a Republican-led Illinois General Assembly and governor turned control of the Chicago Public Schools over to the mayor, half of the teaching force was black. Now that percentage is down to 22 percent, and we are seeing this kind of decline across the country.
The attack on labor, through school privatization and closures, has decimated the black teaching force. That underscores how educational justice must be about civil rights. W. E. B. Du Bois said that it was a Negro idea in the South that the government should provide education for black children. We birthed that idea out of the pain and struggle for our humanity. As black access to quality education improved in the 1970s and 1980s—which was also the height of unionization—the achievement gap between black and white students closed dramatically. Then suddenly, in response to the economic and academic gains that black people were achieving, the system reset itself, beginning with mayoral control and continuing through to budget cuts, privatization, school closures, and the growth of charter schools. The result has been devastating to black communities.
The power holders in this country have proven clever at finding ways to change the rules of the game to make it more difficult for black people to gain access to what should be guaranteed as a common good rather than a privilege. About 85 percent of the student population in Chicago is black or brown. If you are not talking about racial justice, then you’re not serious about transforming the education system to meet the needs of all students.
Our union has fought against the system for firing black teachers, for closing schools, for disinvesting in schools where the staff is overwhelmingly black, schools that were anchors in communities. We talk about the disproportionate impact that school closing has on black neighborhoods. It’s not a coincidence that the same neighborhoods where schools are being attacked are also the most violent neighborhoods. These neighborhoods have suffered from a lack of affordable housing, lead paint contamination, and many other problems. They need more investment in education, not less.
If you’re attacking public schools, you’re attacking black people, especially women. Black women make up the large majority of recipients of teacher pensions. By going after our retirement security, the system is threatening resources that provide what little stability is left in many black neighborhoods. As a black man, I know that the economic security I have within the teaching profession didn’t come just because someone thought it was a good idea to pay people more money. Black workers, who were not even accepted in the teachers’ union in the early years, fought that struggle.
Organizing and Fighting
The history of black teachers is quite profound in this city. Black teachers struck as part of the CTU. But they also led wildcat strikes on their own, where they had to fight both the system and the union. We embrace that history of militant unionism.
The political and educational systems will not automatically provide the working and learning environment that we desire. There is only one way to achieve it: through organizing and fighting. That is not the most comfortable space for educators. It’s hard enough to get through the daily routine of educating students. But the days of being able to simply close our doors and follow our lesson plans are over.
We can best support our students and our communities by organizing and fighting on their behalf. We showed teachers across the country that you can secure a good contract while also securing a good learning environment for students. It is worth that fight.
About the Author
Brandon Johnson is an educator and politician who is the mayor-elect of Chicago, having won the election in 2023. He is an organizer for the Chicago Teachers Union and is a former middle school teacher.