Sisters and Brothers,

Jesse Sharkey headshotWelcome back to school! I hope the new year finds you rested and ready to take on every challenge.

For me, this year marks a time of transition as my sister Karen Lewis retires from office. Karen has meant so much to me, as my work with her has been the most intense, fulfilling and inspirational of my life. We have worked countless hours together, in weekend calls and late nights at the office, and strategized, fretted, shared our outrage and clowned our foes until I blushed.

I will truly miss Karen’s presence in the union office, and in the public life of our city. We all will.

Change happens; it’s a part of life. As people who live through change, we must process and go through its psychological impact. We acknowledge our losses. We recognize the fear and confusion that can come with change, particularly as we’re forced to step outside of our comfort zone. And we acknowledge that change is inevitable, and can offer transformational insight and opportunities if we embrace it.

What does the future look like without the bold, outrageous and fearless educator who’s been our president for the last eight years?

We can find some clues in our past. In our best memories of Karen, she was always surrounded by hundreds of Chicago Teachers Union members, as if being held up by a huge crowd of humanity, clad in fire-engine red. Karen’s true strength didn’t come from her wit or psychological resilience—it came from the rank-and-file members of our union in the streets, in our schools, and in the hearts and minds of the working class people of this great city.

As we look to the future, it looks bright. Although Karen may have retired, the tens of thousands of people who make our union great are still here. We also remain dedicated to the principles upon which we have built this union—democracy, resistance, the defense of public educators and education, and a dedication to the joy of teaching and learning.

Our leadership remains strong. I welcome Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, who shares my vision for the CTU and for the city of Chicago. She joins Recording Secretary Michael Brunson and Financial Secretary Maria Moreno to complete our team of officers. We have new delegates and a new trustee, and a group of eager member activists who will be attending our October 27 conference for delegates, building representatives and school leaders.

We open the school year with the typical CPS chaos of the fingerprint fiasco, the move by Mayor Rahm Emanuel not to run for re-election, contract negotiations brewing in the charter sector and our own contract up for re-negotiation. That’s a lot for any union, which is why I’m asking you, sisters and brothers, to stay united, back each other in your schools and communities, and show Chicago what it means to be CTU strong.

And that’s exactly what we’ve seen in the last year. Despite the union-busting Janus ruling, and a multi-million dollar effort by Bruce Rauner and his Illinois Policy Institute over the past month to convince our members to walk away from our power, we’re actually growing our union. That’s a testament to each and every one of you, because you understand that in unity there is strength.

We are the CTU. For the last eight years, we’ve worked together to build support in school communities and across this city. If our union had been running against the mayor in February, we would have beaten him—that’s the kind of respect we’ve earned. And that’s one reason he’s walking away from his job. We have the respect of parents and communities, and if we marshal this respect, we can build that into a contract fight that will take us that much further in creating the schools that all of our students and all of our educators deserve.

I can’t promise that the next mayor will be better than Rahm for our students and our members. But I can promise that, together, we’ll continue to fight for the dignity of our members and our profession. And I’m honored and excited to stand with each of you in this effort.

In solidarity,

Jesse Sharkey

This article appears in the September 2018 issue of the Chicago Union Teacher.

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