Chicago Teachers Union president Jesse Sharkey to step down in June

Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, spoke in August 2019 at a press conference after the union rejected a neutral fact-finder's proposal, officially launching a countdown to a strike.
Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, spoke in August 2019 at a press conference amid tense contract talks with the district. Sharkey announced Wednesday that he will step down when his term expires June 30. (Yana Kunichoff)

Jesse Sharkey, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, will step down at the end of his term this summer after two tumultuous decades of involvement in union leadership that saw the organization become a political powerhouse. He is backing his second-in-command, Stacy Davis Gates, in a May union leadership election. 

Sharkey said he will return to the classroom in the fall, though when asked about a possible mayoral run, he did not rule out that possibility. He said he has been mulling the decision to not seek reelection for several months, noting that an “all-encompassing” role has taken a toll, and becoming entrenched in the top position would go against the union’s spirit. 

As second-in-command to the late president Karen Lewis, Sharkey took the helm of the union during a resurgent period of flexing its political power. Describing himself as more of a pragmatic, traditional trade unionist, he once said he worried about following on the heels of the charismatic Lewis. At times, his blunt approach could rankle City Hall, such as when he called Mayor Lori Lightfoot “relentlessly stupid” and “relentlessly stubborn” during a recent standoff over COVID safety protocols after winter break.  

During his tenure, clashes with Lightfoot led to three school shutdowns in the past three years, starting with a two-week strike during 2019 contract talks when the union pressed for an ambitious slate of proposals, including smaller class sizes, that went well beyond salary and benefits issues. 

Acrimonious negotiations over COVID safety and remote learning last school year again brought school to a halt and delayed students’ return to the classroom, ultimately yielding a reopening agreement that has been held up as a national model. This past January brought five days of canceled classes in a bruising clash with Lightfoot over coronavirus protocols, which resulted in an agreement members narrowly approved and some criticized as falling short. Sharkey stressed the standoff had nothing to do with his decision to step down. 

On his own list of proudest accomplishments, Sharkey included the “groundbreaking” 2019 contract that mandated a social worker and nurse in every school by 2024, and a successful effort to unionize more charter school educators. He also noted last year’s move by the state legislature to phase in an elected school board in Chicago — a shift for which the union lobbied aggressively and which Lightfoot vocally opposed. 

“It’s a difficult job,” Sharkey said. “I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it’s time to do something different.”

Sharkey’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators will have the final say on whether Davis Gates will lead its slate in the upcoming election, union officials said. They balked at naming names for potential vice president candidates. 

Sharkey, Davis Gates, and other top officers met with reporters virtually Wednesday morning to discuss the announcement, embargoed until Sharkey could share the news with rank-and-file members at an evening meeting.

He called Davis Gates the union’s “most effective spokesperson and most effective strategist,” voicing confidence that their caucus will back her as union president candidate.

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Reflecting on his time in union leadership, Sharkey said he has no regrets and wouldn’t point to anything he would do differently. He took over the top job in 2018 from Lewis, who died last year after a battle with brain cancer. He did note the union failed in its push to avert Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2013 closures of 50 schools on the South and West sides that disproportionately affected Black students and educators. 

Davis Gates, who taught in one of those shuttered buildings, said union members were demoralized in the closures’ aftermath. She credited Lewis and Sharkey with presiding over a resurgence in morale and purpose: “They gave us our dignity back.”

Her voice cracked as she talked about Sharkey’s decision to step down.

“I’ve depended on his leadership,” she said. “It has been a partnership that has challenged me to be better, to be thoughtful, to take my time.

“I am also mad at him because we’re already in an election cycle and I don’t want this to be politicized because Jesse doesn’t deserve that,” she added. 

Some educators and parents have argued that the COVID protocols agreement the union negotiated with the district amid the recent cancellation of classes did not move the needle enough to justify the potential loss of four days of pay for educators who chose not to report to school buildings in person. Many have placed the blame on Lightfoot. 

But Sharkey and Davis Gates also have come under fire from a group of educators calling themselves the Members First Caucus, who planned to challenge them in the May election. The challengers said Sharkey has been too quick to resort to labor actions that have disrupted the district. A membership vote on a resolution to stop teaching in person until the omicron surge subsided or the district agreed to more stringent protocols was held on a Wednesday evening, with families waiting until 11 p.m. to find out the outcome.

In a brief statement Wednesday evening, Mary Esposito-Usterbowski, a school psychologist and Members First president candidate, said the union needs new leadership.

“This May, the CTU can start building stronger relationships with community stakeholders and city leaders so we can deliver more for CTU members and better serve Chicago’s students,” the statement said.  

Sharkey said Wednesday that lively debate within the union speaks to its democratic spirit and called pushback after the school shutdown in January “a mainstream media backlash.”

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Robert Bruno, an expert in labor relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a close observer of the Chicago Teachers Union, said Karen Lewis conceived the union’s “more expansive, aggressive stance” at the bargaining table and beyond.

But, he said, pointing to the 2019 contract and successful lobbying to remove limitations to CTU’s bargaining power at the state legislature, “it was under Jesse Sharkey’s leadership as president that the union fulfilled the goals that had been set.”

Davis Gates said that if she is elected the union’s next leader, she will let membership input inform her agenda and priorities. Based on what she’s heard from the union’s rank and file recently, she said she wants to give an overwhelmingly female membership a forum to advocate for themselves as women and mothers contending with their own child care challenges. 

She also wants to promote more arts and music programming in schools and challenge the high-stakes, high-pressure application process to selective enrollment and other competitive high school programs.

Asked about rumors that she’s mulling a run for mayor, Davis Gates said the speculation has focused on “the wrong officer.” She noted other former CTU officials are politically active, and the union has helped raise up allies such as aldermen Byron Sigcho-Lopez and Jeanette Taylor. And she noted Sharkey himself might choose to run. 

Asked to comment on that possibility, Sharkey chuckled and said, “I am going to have more time,” stressing that for now he is looking forward to a return to the classroom but plans to remain active in advocacy.

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