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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

CTU’s Jesse Sharkey Calls Out Rahm and Claypool After Strike Vote

The vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union has some ideas on how to fix CPS’s finances for the mayor and head of schools.

Jesse Sharkey in July  Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, announced this morning that the union’s strike vote, held last week, was approved overwhelmingly—96 percent of those who cast ballots (about 88 percent of the union) voted to strike as soon as April of 2016. 

I spoke with Sharkey this morning just before he released the results. Sharkey, an officer of the union for more than five years, served as acting president in the wake of Karen’s Lewis’s illness and recovery. He has since reverted to his old VP title as Lewis has bounced back and announced that she will run for another term as CTU president this May. Sharkey, a former high school teacher, was the public face of the union today. Lewis, he told me, is on vacation.

​Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

I’ve heard March and I’ve heard May regarding the timing of a possible strike. CPS wants more mediation; the union wants to start the fact-finding process and has filed an unfair labor complaint.

Fact finding is a 105-day process, so even if it started today, which I don’t think it will, you have 13 weeks or so [of fact finding], so that would put us in April at this point. CPS doesn’t want to start fact finding until February, so that would put us in late May.

Will you have a negotiation meeting today?

They actually have reached out to meet today, so there is a negotiation today, and I will be there. There have been some changes on CPS’s side of the table, but the core people have held steady, which I give CPS credit for. We have frank conversations and we always have been able to communicate. There’s an expression among labor negotiators that we have a mature bargaining relationship.

What do you think of Forrest Claypool, the mayor’s latest pick as CPS CEO?

He played a very negative role when he first came in and pulled the one-year deal off the table. I just don’t think Forrest [who came to CPS from serving as Rahm’s CTA chief] gets what’s at stake. You cut a bus line and people are going to complain about the bus line. You cut classes at a public school and that’s folks’ children you’re talking about. And I just don’t think Forrest gets it. I really hope that he and the mayor start listening to what educators are saying. … [CTU and CPS parents] have to send Rahm and Claypool a message: Do not cut the schools; do not solve the budget crisis on the backs of educators and students. If you do, that will produce a big response. [Sharkey has skin in the game; his sons, ages 9 and 12, attend CPS schools.]

So what happens if you wake up on February 8—the day that Claypool has promised to cut scores of programs and as many as 5,000 teachers if no help arrives from Springfield—and the cuts are announced and commencing?

Here’s the problem. There’s a half-billion-dollar deficit this school year and it’s half over; [the city has] to come up with half a billion dollars to finance the school year. There are only three ways they can do it. Number one, they can borrow. Problem with borrowing is two of four credit agencies have reduced CPS to junk status. Number two, you can cut. That’s a lot of cuts. If you can’t borrow, and you’re not willing to cut, then you have to raise revenue, and now you start getting into what we’ve been saying all along.

If Rahm is really the effective leader he claims to be, he has to pick up the phone, call Ken Griffin [the richest man in Illinois and a backer of both Rahm and Gov. Rauner] and various real estate tycoons. Tell them to call their buddy Rauner and say, “Come off it, we have to raise revenue here.” Or Rahm could say, we’ve made a series of rip-off deals with big banks where banks have gotten millions in sheer windfall profits. We’re going to demand some of that back as a condition for doing further business with your bank. Or he could call his friend David Vitale [the former president of the CPS board who engineered some loan swaps that have cost CPS money] and say, “David, get out of retirement and work on this problem.” That’s what leadership would look like.

You have promoted a tax on millionaires as a way to raise revenue. What about that?

Any tax that is income based, or even a service tax, takes awhile before it actually starts coming into the coffers, until you can pay bills with it. So at this point you need something more immediate to produce revenue, such as sweeping money out of TIFs or getting rebates from banks.

A news story broke over the weekend about the long-time librarian at DuSable High School who had been informed that her position was being cut. Students have protested losing her. Did that cut, during the time that teachers were voting on the issue of striking, seem particularly clumsy to you?

You need to understand that they’ve been cutting librarians left and right for the last two years. There are only two black high schools in the entire city that have librarians at this point. Lane Tech doesn’t have a librarian. There are more librarians at [the University of Chicago] Lab School—13 librarians, according to the school’s web site. [Rahm Emanuel enrolled his three children at Lab.]

Is Karen Lewis really running for another term as CTU president?

Yeah, as far as I know.

Had you hoped for that job for yourself—from acting president to president?

I am Karen Lewis’s VP. I am a principled unionist and a person who spent a long time in this movement. … I really want what’s best for our union, and Karen’s an exceptional leader. The fact that she’s running again I think is remarkable, given what she has gone through. So I’m happy to be part of that in whatever way I can and keep our union going forward.

You have been the policy wonk behind Karen Lewis; you once described her to me as the “big personality,” while you handled the nuts and bolts stuff. So what’s your job now? Trying to do both?

Karen is still very much around. In some ways that hasn’t changed; she’s still usually in front of the camera. One of the things about Karen that people might not be aware of is that she’s a real beast; she can really work long, long days. Since she’s been ill, there’s obviously a limit to that. She doesn’t put in as many hours. And so I wind up doing more of the things that she did.

Does she still have the energy and focus to lead the union?

Yeah, Karen has a remarkable commitment to the union; that’s what her life has been about for the last decade or so. If Karen felt she couldn’t do it, I’m sure she wouldn’t do it. I’m not worried about Karen’s ability to do this job.

Do you see yourself returning to the classroom as a CPS high school teacher?

Sure, those are only [work-related] things in life I’m good at: teaching at an urban school and being a unionist.

In my last couple of conversations with Karen she has described a much-improved relationship with Rahm. What about your relationship with him?

I really don’t have a relationship with Rahm. The way our world works is we don’t have relationships all over the organization. Principal officers talk to principal officers. We consciously do that, when he talks to someone at the CTU, he is going to talk to our president.

I talked to you last February when Chuy Garcia forced Rahm into a runoff. You were really enthusiastic about Chuy and you told me that he was going to be the next mayor.

I rue that, by the way. I think as I recall I said that Rahm was finished.

Do you agree with Karen that, even had the Laquan McDonald video been released, Rahm would have won anyway? 

I think this video is part of a crisis of legitimacy the mayor is facing among black working-class voters, among Latino working-class voters and white working-class voters. Over the last 40 to 50 years, there’s been a harsh abandonment of public housing, no job training, and extremely high levels of unemployment. They’re closing schools and, in short, [there is] a very profound divestment, especially in big swaths of the south and west sides.

It is not enough to say all the problems of the inner city are because of pathologies of poor people themselves, laziness and criminality, and that’s what’s going on. … Rahm didn’t invent [this way of thinking], but he is an enthusiastic spokesperson for it. … What he is giving us looks like warmed-over neoliberal dreck. If I can give myself some degree of credibility back after saying Rahm was finished, obviously elections are difficult…[and] you can bring money. Elections are about choice: Rahm vs Chuy. Rahm was able to convince people that he was a better choice, but what he hasn’t been able to convince people of is that he had the vision that will provide for a better life for parts of the city. And that leads us back to the heart of the political problem; the schools then become a reminder of that problem, a subset of it.

So the answer to the question is what? Yes or no, would Rahm have won had the McDonald tape been out there before the election?

The answer is it would have been a heck of a lot harder for him to win because I’m not sure it would have been possible for him to get the black vote. … Now there’s talk about rerunning the election. I’d rather not; we just had an election. Elections aren’t always a good way to get at fundamental issues. Money allows direct mail and TV ads and slick talking points. I really feel a need to return to grassroots-based mass organizing.

Do you agree with protestors who are calling on Rahm to resign?

Our union has been pretty outspoken against Rahm for a long time, so I’m not going to come rushing to Rahm’s defense, but as a representative for this union we haven’t taken an official position on the protests. We endorsed the Black Friday protests and there are more discussions internally, but we can’t take a position on every twist and turn about what’s going on. I’m not sure we can keep up with the demands of the protestors.

Given CPS’s bleak finances, should the Rahm-promoted selective high school for the North Side, the one he wanted to name for President Obama, be scrapped?


Arne Duncan recently stepped down as Obama’s education secretary. What do you have to say about his service?

We tried to warn the country how damaging Arne Duncan would be as education chief. The damage has been done. We have out-of-control, rampant school privatization spearheaded by him. Arne Duncan has done more to undermine public education in this country than any other secretary of education in memory. I’m ashamed he came out of Chicago, but there’s nothing I can do about it, and I’m ashamed we couldn’t stop [his appointment].

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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