Brandon Johnson in 2014: “It’s Not Enough to Patch Poverty”
Former rank-and-file Chicago Teachers Union member and organizer Brandon Johnson advanced to a runoff election in the city's mayoral race this week. In 2014, Jacobin interviewed Johnson about the CTU's political strategy. We publish the conversation here.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
In 2014, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) was planning its next moves. After electing a reform leadership in 2010, the union carried out a historic strike against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012 and, by all accounts, defeated him. Since then, the union has repeatedly walked off the job over demands that they say include but go beyond members’ bread-and-butter issues of pay and benefits to include demands that benefit the entire Chicago working class. But the CTU was also figuring out how to pivot to impact the electoral arena through an “independent political organization” (IPO).
IPOs are common in Chicago as neighborhood- and ward-level political groups that organize around local issues but can also make endorsements in mayoral and other elections. But the CTU had in mind an IPO that could be a force in politics from the ward level up to federal elections. Such an organization would soon materialize as United Working Families (UWF), a political coalition that includes the CTU and other progressive unions and community organizations in the Chicago area. The group aims to advance a working-class, anti-austerity political agenda.
UWF has now gone through three election cycles and has elected candidates at all levels of government. In this week’s election, thirteen of their city council candidates either won outright or advanced to the April 4 runoff. (Chicago has fifty total city council members, or “aldermen.”) Their endorsees hold three seats on the Cook County Board and eight in the Illinois state legislature. And last year, UWF candidate Delia Ramirez won election to the House of Representatives.
But perhaps the most unexpected UWF achievement thus far is Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson’s advance to the runoff in the city’s mayoral race. He is up against former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who took first in the first round of voting. Vallas ran on a law-and-order platform and has a long history as a hatchet man for austerity, as recently detailed by Miles Kampf-Lassin in Jacobin. (You can read our preelection interview with Johnson here.)
For a Jacobin podcast in August 2014, then hosts Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht spoke to Johnson, who then served as a staffer for the Chicago Teachers Union after working as a classroom teacher. Johnson detailed the union’s thinking on its political strategy and why the union wanted to create an IPO. As Johnson campaigns for the mayoral runoff election next month, we reprint that 2014 conversation here, edited for length and clarity.
The IPO was necessary because there seems to be some conversation at the kitchen-table level [about progressive legislating], but somehow it doesn’t turn into ordinances or bills. The structure of the IPO would permit such a thing.
Our union is led by its rank-and-file membership. We just don’t know who our allies are anymore. We don’t know who our champions are when it comes to the issues that resonate with our members, particularly at the classroom level. So you might have Democrats that say, “Look, I’m for public schools, I’m in favor of public education. I want to see small class sizes.” But there are no policy initiatives or legislation that speaks to that desire.
The CTU felt that it’s our obligation at this point, because the community sees us as the leading voice for justice — for economic justice, for educational justice, for racial justice. So we really weren’t left with any other choice but to take a lead on building an IPO.
In terms of what it will do, our main goal is to organize on the ground around things that matter to our people. Most of what we’ll spend our time doing is raising the issues, building campaigns around a fair tax, building campaigns around lowering class sizes, building campaigns around raising the minimum wage.
If elected officials are not responding to the needs of the community in a real way, then candidates could emerge from that movement. Part of what we would do is actually train candidates to take on incumbents around the issues that have been built through our local organizing.
What is it that the union is facing that has led you to decide to create this organization?
It’s poverty. I mean, it’s poverty. Every day our members show up in the buildings, prepared to engage our students. But as students come into the room, our members are met with life circumstances that make it very difficult for students to learn. Chicago is much smaller than New York, but we have three times the rate of homelessness of children than that of New York.
What teachers do very well is respond and react in a very personal, day-to-day way with our students. Teachers have to see that child outside of just their capacity in the room — when that child leaves their classroom and has to return back to the conditions that make it difficult for them to learn. As poverty becomes more and more apparent, as schools become more and more stratified, where you have these high concentrations of black poor children in the building, our teachers, our school clerks, our nurses, our social workers are seeing the misery and pain of poverty.
Do we continue to simply put a Band-Aid on these conditions? When a child shows up without a coat, we just go buy a coat. If the child doesn’t have a school uniform, we’ll just pitch in some money and get a uniform. Teachers aren’t going to stop doing that. But now our members are saying, wait a minute, there are some systemic problems that are perpetuating the cycle of poverty. And so, if we don’t get involved and really push for policy to address those needs, we’re going to be putting Band-Aids on until we retire.
It’s not enough to patch poverty. You actually have to cut it off at its root. It’s very clear to us that there are systemic financial decisions and policy initiatives that allow for poverty to exist.
What makes the IPO different from how unions have intervened in electoral politics previously?
When we talk about an IPO, some folks will say, “Well, there are other organizations that call themselves independent, but they’re still a part of the status quo.” The first thing that makes us different is that our number one priority is not simply to get out the vote. When you think about some of the other parties, their job is to knock on doors so they vote for this candidate.
What’s going to be different about what we’re doing is we are going into the community without selling a candidate to anyone. We’re simply going into the community to dig deeper around those issues that people care about. Because what’s going to make people turn out and vote can’t just simply be tethered to a particular candidate or a political party. It has to be connected to ideas that they believe in. A lot of our work is going to be around organizing the community around issues in a way that makes folks see us as a very trusting voice.
Where I think we have an opportunity to modulate a little bit is in the idea of candidates emerging out of discussions in those communities. Typically, in Chicago, Democratic or Republican organizations will tap someone to run for office, or there’s some sort of line — this individual is next, he’s waiting his turn, he’s been a precinct captain for all these years. This person has been a good soldier to the party.
What we’re seeing is that as people begin to find their voices through our community organizing around the key issues, sometimes the community decides that this is a person that can carry our message either at the city-council level or in Springfield. If that person is willing, they should be prepared to run for office.
It seems since the successful candidacy of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, there’s been more clamoring about potential independent candidacies. Could you say something about whether the CTU’s IPO would be willing to actually support an independent candidate, a candidate who is not running under the Democratic Party?
It’s a good question. That depends on the community. It also depends on the particular political climate that we’re in. If a person decides that they want to run, and the community decides that they’re going to support this candidate as an independent candidate that will face a Democrat in the general election, there’s room for that. If someone wants to challenge the Democrat in a primary because they believe that they have a better opportunity at carrying the message and pushing the needs of the community forward, there’s room for that.
There’s been talk of rank-and-file members of the CTU running for some positions like alderman or state representative. How will you be choosing which races you’re going to be involved in, or who you’re going to back, or who you’re going to run?
We certainly want to encourage our members to run. However, if someone approaches the CTU, and as the IPO begins to find itself and as we solidify our structure, we certainly would be open to candidates expressing interest. More importantly, we don’t want to lose in this political opportunity. Right now the CTU is the flavor of the month. So there are going to be some folks that are going to call themselves progressive. They might say, “We don’t like the mayor either,” but maybe these are folks who’ve been employed by the city in the Democratic machine for ages. And now they feel the need to approach the IPO.
People have to demonstrate that they have been on the ground connected to the issues, particularly over the last three years. If you haven’t been to a single rally, I think you are going to be hard-pressed to get the IPO to give you the nod and say, “Yeah, this is one of ours.” Now, it doesn’t mean that we would automatically exclude them, but there are going to be some very specific things that we’re going to be requiring out of individuals who want to participate in the IPO.
I don’t think it’s unreasonable to require folks who want to run for office to actually spend time in the community. Are you having house meetings? Are you hosting forums? Are you knocking on doors? Are you going to rallies? Are you taking families to the Board of Education meeting to speak out about the needs of their children’s schools? Are you visiting the homes of folks who work for Walmart and the only way they’re able to survive is through government assistance? Are you spending time with those families? It won’t work to just say, “Hey, I’m a progressive. I like you guys. I don’t like the mayor. Can you guys give me some cash and support me?” It’s just not going to work that way.
The CTU has made racial inequality in Chicago a central part of its campaigns. Can you talk a little bit about how the IPO will address racial inequality in the city?
The Chicago Teachers Union is extremely popular in the black community. Our organization polls quite well, and with good reason.
It’s no secret that, during our strike, we didn’t make it simply about wages and benefits, though those were important to us. We also used it as an opportunity to expose the fact that we have schools that are grossly neglected. The way the mayor has behaved, particularly in the black community, is by essentially picking on defenseless people. Once upon a time, you had black political leadership, whether elected officials or pastors or black organizations, that protected or safeguarded black communities from failed policy. Those safeguards are not there anymore.
We’re popular because we’ve been vocal and up-front about calling things what they are and saying that many of these policies are just plain old racist. And the reason why it’s necessary for us to call it out that way is because black folks in particular live under the misery of racist policies all the time. New black leaders come into these communities to sell them some other explanation to why these conditions are the way they are: somehow we haven’t worked hard enough, or haven’t been vocal enough, or we didn’t come out to vote. So it’s our fault that our communities are being decimated.
The CTU provided a different view of that. The reason why these communities are suffering is because there is $1.7 billion in tax in surplus that the community is not receiving. And because the privatization of our schools has exacerbated the loss of black teachers while black students are being displaced. The charter operators are corrupt, and they’re turning a profit off of black folks’ misery.
Black consciousness has always been there, but it has been stifled by the current black leadership, which benefits from not only black misery but also from very corporate interest groups that are causing that pain. They get to stay in power as long as they keep the black consciousness curtailed or muffled.
Black people in this country have led the most progressive movements that our country has ever seen. Think about the Civil Rights era and how A. Philip Randolph working with Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the labor and faith communities to push for a more equitable society. Ninety-one pieces of legislation came out of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. That didn’t happen because LBJ just wanted to be great. That happened because you had a black radical left agenda that brought Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. All of that came out of the black consciousness movement.
We have great ambition, but it’s not like there’s not a template for that type of movement. It’s not a surprise to us that the black community is more receptive to what the CTU has been pushing. In a recent poll, 69 percent of all Americans essentially believe in the redistribution of wealth, and 84 percent of black folks believe that the redistribution of wealth to bring about equality and justice is necessary. Black people are a natural ally of labor, and so we have to rekindle that alliance that has been lost over the years.
For many decades, leftists and trade unionists have talked about unions building an independent party — that is, independent of the Democratic Party. If the IPO were to move toward independent politics, there would be some serious risks. Could talk about that possibility and those risks?
We recognize that the risk of not challenging the status quo is that we’re going to keep getting what we’re getting. So we need to step out to build a more independent political voice in the city. The folks that want to destroy us, I’m sure they’re gearing up to try to manipulate the situation and take advantage of us essentially building a poor people’s campaign. But if we’re not speaking to poverty, we don’t have real legitimacy on the ground. And so we recognize that by paying attention to the needs of the poor, there will be folks there to exploit our move in that direction.
However, I know that a lot of folks are frustrated with the Democratic Party, and rightfully so. The neoliberal phenomenon has been detrimental to our struggle for existence: the fleeing from public sector appreciation, the fleeing from public accommodations, all those things that made the black middle class possible, all those programs that provided some safety net and protection for poor people who are working hard to survive.
With that being said, however, as the IPO begins to find its voice, there could be instances in which someone decides to run for office that speaks to the needs of the people and happen to have a D next to their name. It would be inappropriate for me to suggest that we’re not going to ever participate in Democratic primaries. However, I do know that folks do seem to have a stomach for distancing themselves from the Democratic Party, and rightly so.
What we recognize as an institution is that the political landscape in this city is not going to change overnight. There are different thoughts to how you make that change. There are some folks that will probably consider themselves more radical than me or more left than me, and who want us to totally separate ourselves from the Democratic Party and take those lumps as we go along. I certainly do not declare myself the leader of black people, but I will say this: that type of action could lead to some extreme pain not just for our members but for the people that we serve. I’m not sure if I am okay with exposing communities to that type of pain for some forty- or fifty-year-long program.
In our approach to push the agenda left, we do have to bring people along. As we begin to solidify the IPO, we have to have a balance that speaks to the left agenda that people want to see, but also speaks to where people are and how we move them along.
If we have an IPO that’s successful, that actually elects people, then those individuals are going to have to make deals at city hall or in Springfield. But we have to make sure that, when compromise is made, it’s made from the Left and not the center right. Right now, we’re not even presenting a case that’s making people move in our direction.
Before you were involved in the CTU, and even before you were teaching, you worked for the Democratic Party. Could you talk some about how your ideas and politics have evolved over time since then?
When I inserted myself into politics twelve years ago, I saw how different governance at the state-representative level is from how we motivate issues on the ground. I saw how even the “good” Democrats deserve to be pushed. And because of the lack of push, even folks who might mean well just don’t do better because there’s not enough folks actually pushing.
To watch how a bill becomes a law, or how a bill gets killed and never sees the light of day, that experience has taught me that pushing is the only way our community’s issues make it out of the particular committee that they’re stuck in.
One of the ways to push is to have an elected representative school board. I was a part of a campaign that worked to get that on the ballot in precincts across the city. I see my friends in the Democratic Party now sometimes squirm when I come around. As a young man coming in, you think that the power lies on the other side of the desk. But I’m learning that the real power actually exists on this side.
Can you give us a brief introduction to the idea of an independent political organization (IPO) and why your union, the CTU, and other community organizations and unions in the city decided that a citywide IPO was needed at this time?