When CTU Field Rep José Jiménez began working at CPS as a school clerk 36 years ago, he didn’t think the job was for him. The students at Wells Community Academy High School needed so much that Jiménez felt he couldn’t possibly provide enough.
“But early in my second year, the students proved me wrong,” he said. Jiménez also graduated from Wells, so “I was one of those very kids, from the same neighborhood, same grammar school and high school. They reminded me every day who I was and where I came from.”
That was in 1987. He worked at the school for another 25 years until the CTU hired him as a part-time field rep in 2012.
Jiménez calls himself a true Chicagoan, born and bred here to parents from Puerto Rico. The family called several neighborhoods home: Wicker Park, Humboldt Park, and Bucktown.
In Wicker Park he attended the Wicker Park Achievement Skills Center, now called A.N. Pritzker School. In Humboldt Park, he attended Lafayette Elementary, which Rahm Emanuel closed in 2013. In Bucktown, he attended Drummond Elementary before it became a Montessori school. And he graduated from Wells Community Academy High School.
Jiménez said he is not really sure how he ended up working in education, but he remembers very well how he came to work for the union. While a clerk at Wells, he was working in the after-school program. When the new principal refused to pay him for an entire semester, he filed a grievance and learned firsthand the value of the union.
“I hadn’t really been involved in the union before that,” he said. “But after CTU won the grievance for me, I vowed to never let this happen to anyone else.” Since then, he has served as a citywide CTU delegate, executive board member, bargaining team member, strike captain, IFT delegate and CTU field rep.
But a career in education was not on his mind as a young man. Jiménez planned to study business and got an associate’s degree from Wilbur Wright Community College. While attending school, he worked part time as a bartender at the Lyric Opera House, and the Wells principal at the time had season tickets. He got to know Jiménez and offered him a job.
“I never dreamed I’d end up working in my old high school, but I really liked it,” he said. “Something clicked between me and the kids. They saw someone who looked like them, and that was a positive experience.”
Now, as a CTU field rep, he serves members at 40 different schools, helping them understand and enforce their contract and engage in union activities and campaigns. He also represents members at grievance hearings.
“It feels really good to help our members. There’s nothing better than calling a member and saying, ‘Your grievance has been granted,’” he said. “And I really love watching our members truly see that CTU is the strongest union in the country and that they are a part of something special. And when they fight, we win.”
As a union member for some 36 years, Jiménez has seen a lot of changes.
“The CTU is very different than it was when I first started in CPS,” he said. “There’s more member involvement, and the social justice movement has escalated. Our union doesn’t just serve our members now. It also serves the students and the entire city of Chicago.”
That service to the greater needs of our school communities was part of the transformation CTU President Emerita Karen Lewis embarked on in 2010, with the union’s vision of common-good bargaining for the schools Chicago children deserve.
“Karen was a special woman and a transformational leader,” Jiménez said. “I’m so glad I got to know her and work with her.”
Jiménez has no plans to leave CTU any time soon, but he does look forward to retirement, when he can spend time gardening, traveling, scuba diving and shark diving. Yes, that’s when you dive in water surrounded by sharks.
Until then, however, he’d like to see some big changes in CPS.
“The CPS bureaucracy must change, including getting rid of student-based budgeting,” he said. “They have created a system of haves and have nots in one district, with students like the ones I served at Wells always getting the short end of the stick. That has to change.”
But with a new mayor on the fifth floor of City Hall, Jiménez said he is looking forward to better days ahead for our students and our city.