Howard Heath

Photo of CTU member Howard Heath.

If you’ve been to a CTU meeting or event recently, you may have noticed a thin, well-dressed, slightly graying gentleman with a 35 mm camera strung around his neck. That would be retiree and CTU Executive Board member Howard Heath, who turned to photography when he retired after 34 years in the classroom and at CTU.

Born and bred in Chicago, Heath has either participated in or documented three decades worth of campaigns, strikes and other labor actions for the CTU. He served as CTU’s first and only male Black Vice President, as the first minority delegate at Lane Tech, where he taught for 31 years, and continues to serve as the CTU’s Retiree Functional Vice President and AFT Retiree Representative.

Math and science geek

Photo of CTU retiree Howard Heath holding a sign at a union protest.A confessed math and science geek in school, Heath never contemplated a career in anything besides math, but he knew he wanted to give back to his community. Teaching seemed the perfect way to combine the two goals. 

When he was contemplating college offers, his mother suggested he accept Knox College in Galesburg, over the University of Chicago. Both schools had offered him full ride scholarships but she reasoned that living and studying in a predominantly white school, in a white town, would better prepare him for work in a segregated school system. 

In hindsight, she was right. “Back then, Knox was considered the Harvard of the Midwest,” Heath said. “There were only about 30 minority students on the entire campus so it prepared me well for going to Lane Tech.”

After graduation, Heath hoped he would return to teach at Wendell Phillips High School, his alma mater. But, back then, the district’s central office assigned staff to schools and he suspects he was sent to Lane in order to help desegregate the school’s workforce. 

Inescapable inequities

He enjoyed teaching math and computer science and thrived at the school. But, alongside his colleague CTU President Emerita Karen Lewis, he couldn’t help but notice the inequities in the system.

“Having attended Wendell Phillips, which was severely under-resourced, then working at Lane with a wealth of resources, it was hard not to think about the injustice of it,” he said.

For example, as the computer science department chair, he recalled getting $5,000 — a lot of money at the time — to install the first computer network in a CPS school. At the same time, schools on the South and West Side were struggling just to get the basics. 

In his time at Lane, he authored a computer sciences workbook, which was sold across the country, led the school’s state-champion chess team and won the Lakeview Citizens Council teacher of the year award.

Elected CTU vice president

Always an active CTU member, in 2001 Heath decided to take that activism further. He was elected CTU vice president as a member of Deborah Lynch’s PACT union caucus. Back then, Lynch was considered a reformer taking on the old guard at CTU.

“The CTU in those days was the old style of union, focusing just on salary and benefits and ignoring the broader issues in our schools,” Heath said. “Their mistake was embracing school reform — that was the beginning of the end for them.”

Paul Vallas had been in office for four years, pushing the neo-liberal idea of reform, which meant punishing teachers and privatizing much of the system. 

“We ran Vallas out, but the mayor kept going, kept closing schools, expanding charters. They pushed this idea that schools should be run like a business,” he said.  

Work in the state capitol

As union vice president, Heath spent a lot of time in the state capitol, working to undo some of Vallas and the mayor’s most heinous “reforms.” He is particularly proud of helping to lower the full-pension retirement age for CTU members from 67 to 55 and the push to restore the union’s full bargaining rights. 

“For two-thirds of my career we had full bargaining rights that allowed us to challenge things in our buildings, like class size. When we lost them, it made a big difference,” he said. After decades of struggle, CTU won back its full bargaining rights in 2021. 

Heath retired in 2007, after 34 years, 31 in the classroom and three at CTU. But he hasn’t slowed down. In addition to his other union activities, he serves on the joint CPS/CTU class size committee and wants to make full staffing a priority in our next contract. 

When not busy with union work, you’ll find Heath and his camera documenting the struggles of the day. CTU has used his photos in dozens of publications and a Black History Month exhibit at the Devonshire Cultural Center in Skokie includes some of his work.

Heath advises his younger union siblings to plan for their retirement. “You worked hard for your benefits, for your pension. You beat the system,” he said. “So retire as soon as you can and get out and enjoy it.”