Fighting for Teachers, Children, and Their Parents: Building a Social Justice Teachers’ Union—Part I
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 one of his story. Read part two.
The moment you sign up to become a teacher in the Chicago public school system you become an advocate, because you’re always searching for opportunities to meet the needs of your students. The system often falls short—from classroom materials, to reading and math support, to social and emotional development. Most schools don’t have social workers and counselors, for example, even though there is an overwhelming need for them.
While I was teaching at Jenner Academy, a K–8 school near the Cabrini-Green housing projects, I saw many policies that resulted in tremendous destabilization. For example, the district closed a neighborhood school located on the other side of the boundary in gang territory. Those students had to walk across gang lines every day to attend their new elementary school. As our students left the building, gangs of students gathered outside, waiting to confront them and make it impossible for them to get back home. It was chaotic. A local police commander told me that he deployed more police officers at this elementary school than at all the high schools in the area combined. My role as an educator extended well beyond teaching time, because we had to ensure that students could walk safely across the street.
We faced tremendous stress every day. Somehow, despite these extreme circumstances, students were expected to learn and teachers were expected to teach; the political leadership had no regard for those black lives. That’s when I started to realize that we needed a teachers’ union that would understand the broader fight beyond wages and benefits.
After teaching at Jenner Academy for several years, I reluctantly left to teach at Westinghouse High School on the west side, close to my home. Karen Lewis had just been elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). The new leadership was looking to make some dynamic changes by adopting an organizing model instead of the service model that it had followed for too long. I joined the organizing summer institute, where I had the experience of talking to our members about what a good school system could look like. I spent six weeks of a hot summer knocking on hundreds of doors across the city. At the end of the summer, the union leadership asked me to join the staff and help prepare for what became the 2012 Chicago teachers strike.
Over that summer of door knocking, I learned that my experiences at Jenner were not unique. The city was disinvesting in schools in black neighborhoods across the city. As students lost their school, the children of gentrifiers occupied it. They would close a predominantly black school, forcing the students to cross gang territory, and open an overwhelmingly white selective enrollment school in the building. It made me sick: this intentional policy to remove people who were indigenous to the community to make room for the new Chicagoans.
A Conscious Black Educator
There is a tremendous need for conscious black men to teach in Chicago schools. To be honest, the challenge has often felt overwhelming. I’m not magical. Black children do not automatically listen to me more because I’m a black man. But seeing a black man working full-time as a professional in their schools can have a tremendous impact on children.
Conscious teachers recognize that the way to educate children is by giving them the opportunity to ask questions and not simply follow directions. They engage with students, learning about their experiences and ideas and hopes. I do not teach a story and just say, “Answer these five questions.” I also have to be aware that the conditions in which the students live are real political problems. For example, one day a student in my classroom had his head down for a long time, and I thought something might be wrong. I said, “What’s going on, man? You’ve had your head down for forty minutes.”
“No, Mr. Johnson, I’m for real,” he replied. “I’m not feeling well.” He opened his mouth, and I saw that one of his teeth had a hole from severe decay. There was no nurse in the building that day. That hole had not opened up just the previous night. This had been a condition he’d had for some time. These are political problems.
I want to help my students think critically about their environment. I want them to understand why they have an untreated medical problem and why there’s no nurse in their school. Maybe then, if our union and community allies are successful, when students come to school with a medical condition, there will be a nurse to treat them.
The Making of a Social Justice Union
You do not win elections during the voting. You win in the buildup.
Back in the 1990s, when school closures, consolidations, and charter expansions began, the old CTU leadership did not put up a fight. When they announced that the last school was going to close in Cabrini and that the school where I was teaching would be the receiving school for all the displaced students, the union leadership focused only on how to keep as many jobs as possible. Local teachers were left to speak out against the closure on their own. There was no fight about all the social and economic injustices that occurred because of school closures.
Teachers who were part of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, led by Karen Lewis, began to organize protests and rallies against mass teacher layoffs and budget cuts. I said to my colleagues, “This is what a union needs to look like.”
The caucus won the election for the union leadership in 2010, and Karen Lewis became the new president of the CTU. We moved quickly to reorient ourselves as a social justice union. We look at social justice in terms of equity and how schools are resourced, but we also look at it from a racial and economic justice point of view. The school “deformers,” as we refer to the so-called reformers, have caused tremendous harm. Low-income black communities have suffered the most under these privatization schemes.
For example, North Lawndale, on the west side of Chicago, has a profound history. Dr. Martin Luther King stayed in North Lawndale when he came to Chicago. This historic neighborhood has just been devastated by an unemployment rate that resembles that of the Great Depression, and from sustained disinvestment in housing and schools. Many schools in North Lawndale, like 140 schools across Chicago, have no librarians. Schools often have no social workers, counselors, or nurses, and offer physical education as an online course. In addition, many schools lack proper ventilation, so they are either boiling hot or freezing cold. Instead of investing in these schools to build up the community, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and his handpicked school board implements a so-called turn-around school policy with which they fire every person in the building, including the cafeteria workers. They bring in a whole new set of teachers who are young and white, and most of them don’t stay longer than eighteen months. The turnover is far worse than in a traditional neighborhood school, and the problems continue.
This was and is an injustice. We knew the union had to fight for schools that all children deserve. To gain credibility beyond securing wages and benefits, we had to connect our working conditions to our students’ learning conditions. Moreover, we had to fight to improve both the quality of the learning environment and the quality of the living conditions that our students, their families, and our members endure every day.
Teachers and Community United
We moved to shift our teachers away from the service model of unionism—in which a teacher has an issue and the union representative meets with the principal to resolve it—to seeing themselves as a powerful force to protect members and students in their own building. Members must recognize that the union is only as strong as its membership. Teachers have to organize in their building against attacks on the contract but also against violations of students’ rights, such as the right to Individualized Education Program accommodations for special education students. That involves organizing parents as well.
Historically, there have been divisions between teachers’ unions and parents of color. We addressed this up front by creating a community table called the Grassroots Education Movement (GEM). Parent and community organizations sit at this table as partners with the union. Their views matter to us and helped shape our new program. The CTU program calls for fully funding education; reducing class sizes; improving facilities; challenging inequities in resources and school discipline; providing wraparound services with more counselors and nurses; adding classes in art, music, and physical education; and partnering with parents in all we do.
Our community partners have led us in actions that have pushed our union’s comfort zone. For example, they advocated for GEM to organize a march to Mayor Emanuel’s house in 2011 to protest his plan for further privatization of public education. The mayor was at the height of his popularity, with a 70 percent approval rating, and we were hesitant. Our community and parent organizations insisted we had to take it right to the mayor’s front door—and they meant it literally. They said, “We need to march in his neighborhood and tell the mayor that this is harming us. We can’t find you downtown, so we’re going to find you at your home.” Our community partners challenged the union and our membership, insisting that we be far more confrontational, and they were right. It was a dynamic action that energized our members and showed where we stood as a union. This is the important thing about organizing and fighting for an educational justice movement: you must be prepared to not just talk about what you want but to take some risk as well.
We worked with our members to understand that you can’t fight for black children without fighting for their black parents. Teachers need to build relationships with parents of the children they serve. If parents and teachers are not collaborating to bring about a better working and learning environment, we don’t have a fighting chance at beating back those who are undermining public education. In fact, had it not been for parents working alongside our membership with their children, we certainly would not be the force we are for educational justice.
Prior to the strike, CTU members spent countless hours talking with parents in our buildings. We knocked on thousands of doors across the city. Many teachers and parent allies led discussions at their churches. We talked to folks about what a school system should look like, not just about our pay. We would ask, “What do you want from your schools?” Parents would tell us what they wanted but would also say, “You all deserve to get paid too.” They recognized the hard work that we put in. We agreed that you can fight for a good school and protect the dignity of those who work there. Those conversations laid the foundation for widespread parent and community support for our strike.
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.