A former top adviser to Mayor Lori Lightfoot is behind a social media campaign supporting challengers to the current Chicago Teachers Union leadership team in the union’s upcoming election.
The campaign to lead perhaps the city’s strongest and most recognizable union is drawing significantly more attention than usual after three straight years of disputes with the mayor, who has long viewed the CTU as one of her most strident political adversaries, particularly ahead of a mayoral election next year in which the union is expected to oppose her.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey announced he won’t seek reelection, but Stacy Davis Gates, his vice president, will run for the top seat. Their union slate, called the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, is a progressive group that has negotiated for social and educational justice causes. Their opponents, called Members First, want the union to focus on bread and butter labor issues such as pay and benefits and have called for more transparency in the union’s political efforts.
Lisa Schneider Fabes confirmed her involvement Thursday in promoting Members First in a targeted advertising campaign through a group called Chicago Teachers United. She oversaw the Lightfoot administration’s transition into office in 2019 and was chief operating officer of the mayor’s election campaign. She resigned in 2019 from World Business Chicago, a public-private organization that is partly funded by the city to promote economic development, while under investigation by the city’s inspector general for getting paid for that job while “volunteering” in the mayor’s office and living in the suburbs.
Schneider Fabes lives in Wilmette and is on the school board of District 39. On her school board campaign page, she touts more recent work with the city’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
She said neither the mayor nor Members First are connected to her most recent effort. “Teachers United is not the city and I don’t work for the city,” she wrote.
Employer involvement in union elections violates federal labor laws and the union prohibits those running for office from seeking financial or in-kind support from anyone outside the union.
City Hall spokeswoman Kate LeFurgy said Lightfoot and her team “have had zero involvement in any internal union election, ever.
“This activity has apparently been independently pursued by a former staff member, who left her role … more than two years ago,” she said. “The mayor remains committed to respecting the independent, democratic processes of our partners in the labor movement without interference.”
Members First declined to comment.
Schneider Fabes said her connection to Chicago Teachers United is transparent. But most public information about the group is opaque, such as a Springfield, Ill., address. Her connection was discovered by CTU leadership — and tipped off to reporters Thursday — because her phone number is listed on the organization’s Facebook page.
The group has paid $472 for three well-crafted advertisements on Facebook and Instagram, records show, reaching at least 23,000 users combined since Tuesday. Each of the ads links to the Members First website.
One has a picture of what appears to be a teacher and reads, “CTU leadership cost each and every member more than $1,600 in pay last month but all we got were a couple of extra N95 masks. Time for a change.” The group’s web site also highlights Members First, with links to the group’s web page and Facebook page.
Shortly after WBEZ and the Sun-Times asked Schneider Fabes about the page, the ads were deactivated.
“I’m an education activist and advocate for public schools,” said Schneider Fabes, who worked for CPS early in her career. “Teachers United is funded by a group of civic minded parents who love Chicago, admire teachers and public schools.”
She said she helped start the group in January because she cares “about what happens in my community and of course in Chicago, where I’ve spent my entire career on issues ranging from improving affordable housing to public schools.
“We have zero connection whatsoever to Members First, but we have great admiration for their courage to challenge the status quo as well as their commitment to their profession, their union and the children they teach. This is not connected to the mayor or CPS in any way.”
Involvement in a union election by an employer is a clear violation of federal labor law, said Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations and wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike. He said he would be concerned about whether there’s enough separation between Schneider Fabes and the mayor’s office.
“It would probably be a good idea for [the mayor] to make clear that this is not appropriate,” he said. “If you are not condemning it in some way, you seem to be suggesting that it is somehow appropriate.”
Bruno added that union members usually do not take well to the idea that outsiders are trying to influence an internal election, which is scheduled for May.
CTU leadership first pointed reporters to the direction of the Facebook page Thursday, citing concerns of possible outside interference in an internal election.
After Schneider Fabes’ connection was confirmed, Jesse Sharkey, the outgoing president of the CTU, said it was “unprecedented” and “despicable” for non-members to influence votes, calling it an “abuse of power” for someone tied to the mayor to do so.
“If Lisa Fabes wants to influence the outcome of a CTU election, I encourage her to come get a job at CPS, do the work that we do and join the union, and she’d be more than welcome to put her opinions forward in a fair election,” Sharkey said. “I’d really much rather lose a union election to another set of union members than to lose a union election to the boss.
“It’s an affront to the integrity of our union and our ability to make decisions without having well-paid political operatives run campaigns inside the CTU. Decisions about who leads the CTU are up to members of the CTU, period.”
Sharkey said the union would have internal discussions about how to handle outside involvement in an election.
Jackson Potter, a former member of CORE leadership who is now teaching at Back of the Yards High School, said all CTU members, no matter their political beliefs or affiliations, should agree that people outside the union working to sway a vote “is antithetical to having clean and transparent elections.”
“It’s incumbent on [Members First] to condemn the usage of their platform and logo and website in the interests of dividing our union and really harming it,” he said. “And they should make that abundantly clear. And if they’re not willing to do that, then that probably tells you something.”
Nader Issa is the education reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.