Building a Movement: Chicago's Grassroots Mayoral Victory
Brandon Johnson's grassroots campaign was forged by the radical spirit of the 2012 Chicago's teachers' strike. We talk to members of the people-powered movement that got him elected.
One month after the Chicago teachers’ strike gripped the Windy City with an audacious challenge to its political establishment in September 2012, Brandon Johnson looked and sounded like someone who just experienced a political awakening.
Speaking at a panel discussion about the radical strike and movement it inspired—which you can still find on YouTube—Johnson noted that the union battle erupted just as he reached the pinnacle of his teaching career at George Westinghouse College Prep. He even had his retirement date marked off in his mental calendar.
As far as his professional life went, he was content. But as Johnson would soon learn, the future has a strange way of disrupting even the best-laid plans—just like those red-clad, sign-toting, establishment-smashing teachers that packed the streets in 2012.
Eleven years after the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) bucked the system and won major concessions from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s regime, Johnson himself accomplished the seemingly impossible by winning a competitive mayoral election that began with him in the unenviable position as a virtual unknown. Johnson, who had been serving as Cook County Commissioner, earned 20 percent of the vote in the first round of voting, enough to advance him to a two-candidate runoff, which he won in April.
After a career advocating on behalf of educators, fighting school closures, and calling on the city to provide students with greater resources, Johnson will have the opportunity to create change from the inside. Supporters have high hopes for his mayoral tenure. After all, it was a movement that catapulted him to City Hall.
Why We Covered This Topic
The mayoral race in Chicago was an under-the-radar affair outside the city, which isn’t unusual. The continued demise of local news combined with cable news’ tabloid-esque coverage of national politics has made comparatively smaller elections appear less interesting or important. In many, cases, however, the opposite is true—actual legislating is more likely to occur on the local and state level. And when you consider the generational impact of this race—a progressive challenger seemingly coming out of nowhere to take down the Democratic machine in Chicago—it became incumbent on us to look deeper into this story.
To help us better understand the race and the grassroots movement that shaped it, we interviewed supporters of the Johnson campaign, including those who pounded the pavement to help push him over the finish line. We also wanted to know what role the 2012 CTU strike played in inspiring Johnson to pursue public office. (Spoiler alert: A lot.)
And there was another question that we wanted answered: Would it be possible for progressives across the country to copy Johnson’s blueprint for success? Listen to the complete episode and you’ll likely come away with the same conclusion that we had—probably not. In no way is that an indictment of the process, but instead a sober recognition that Johnson’s victory was literally a decade in the making. You can give Johnson credit for uniting a broad coalition of communities and organizers that knocked on doors and talked to voters about relevant issues, from public safety and education to housing and jobs. On a certain level, the type of grassroots campaigning that propelled Johnson can be replicated. But to be sure, the dramatic union uprising in 2012 fundamentally changed Chicago politics, and with it, Johnson’s place in history.
What You’ll Learn in This Episode
The 2012 CTU strike is viewed as a seminal moment for not only the city of Chicago, but teacher unions throughout the country. The uprising grabbed national and international headlines as teachers in red shirts took to the streets in a strike that lasted seven days. Not only did the union win concessions from Emanuel, a champion of school privatization, but the strike had a profound effect on the city: uniting political organizations, unions, and community members. Those interviewed for this episode agreed that the revolt laid the foundation for the type of grassroots organizing that keyed Johnson’s victory this April.
While crime appeared to be the top issue that concerned voters, you couldn’t escape how the opposing views on education informed the race—with Johnson a former public school teacher and union organizer, and Paul Vallas the first CEO of Chicago Public Schools.
The 2012 strike was the culmination of years of national and local policies of what CTU organizers and other educators condemned as “corporate-led school reform.” Jackson Potter, the current vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, tells us policies that emerged from the Reagan administration served as the catalyst for a lot of the change that occurred at the local level, especially in Chicago.
The dramatic action didn’t result in wholesale changes to the school system, however. In 2013, Emanuel’s administration closed 50 schools they considered “low performing,” disproportionately displacing Black K-12 students. According to a joint investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ published this year, “[a]bout 89% of the K-12 kids from closed schools were Black, in a school system in which only 41% of students were Black. Hispanic students made up about 9% of the closed schools’ populations. White kids accounted for fewer than 1%.”
We look at how Johnson leveraged the grassroots infrastructure created by the 2012 strike to his advantage. In particular, CTU, along with other grassroots and union organizations, created an independent political organization in 2014 called United Working Families, which played a huge role in Johnson’s people-first campaign.
Who We Interviewed & What They Said
Andrea Ortiz is an executive committee member of United Working Families and serves as the director of organizing for the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a nonprofit that she took leave from to work on the Johnson campaign. Ortiz was born and raised in the Southwest Side of Chicago.
“I think that a lot of folks just have been really tired for a very long time…They disinvested and took money away from our schools. They did everything but help us. And the victory of Brandon Johnson is not the victory of Brandon Johnson but the victory of four years of organizing in Chicago.”
Crystal Gardner is the associate political director for United Working Families and served as the regional field director for the West Side of Brandon Johnson's campaign. Gardner was born and raised on the West Side of Chicago and lives in the same neighborhood as Johnson.
“It is a coalition of individuals and organizations and labor unions that have come together and organized. We're not all just kind of siloed doing our own thing. We're actually coming to the table actively saying, ‘Okay, this brother here (Brandon Johnson) is who we want to be the face of what we are trying to do, the face of change in this very moment.’”
Jackson Potter is vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union and has been an educator in the city for two decades.
“Chicago, even though it's a blue city, that's really in name only. You've had a lot of conservative politicians over the years, the Daleys especially, and there was a willingness to, particularly after the 1987 teacher strike—which was a 19-day strike—to weaponize this rhetoric and go to the state legislature, kind of undermine some of the community-based structures that [former Mayor] Harold Washington had supported and initiated: local school councils that saw a renaissance of improvements in terms of community engagement, student academic progress. And that was eclipsed by this really powerful rhetoric emanating from [Washington] D.C. around test scores being sort of the dominant way to measure and sort schools.”
Learn more about the 2012 CTU strike and the contemporary history of education policy in Chicago in Jackson Potter’s Jacobin article commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the strike: “Chicago Teachers Union VP: 10 Years Ago, We Went on Strike and Won.”
Read the joint investigation from the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ about the school closures: “Chicago promised students would do better after closing 50 schools. That didn’t happen.”
Watch this video of Brandon Johnson from 2012 discussing the historic strike:
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