How Chicago’s Working-Class Movement Elected Mayor Brandon Johnson

In a conversation with Jacobin, Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates, city councilor Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, and editor Alex Han discuss how Chicago’s working-class movement elected one of its own as mayor and where that movement goes now.

Brandon Johnson at an event on March 17, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has transformed Chicago politics in the decade and a half since a group of teachers organized within the CTU known as the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) took over their union. The CTU has repeatedly gone on strike, opposed austerity, and built a political organization called United Working Families (UWF) that, alongside other like-minded unions and community organizations, has reshaped electoral politics in the city and established itself as a major fighting force for Chicago’s working class as a whole.

Nowhere has the union’s power been on better display than the recent municipal elections in Chicago, in which the CTU won an incredible come-from-behind victory in the mayoral race, electing one of their own, a former middle school teacher, CTU staffer, and Cook County commissioner Brandon Johnson as mayor — first by making it to a runoff against a large pool of challengers and an incumbent, mayor Lori Lightfoot, in the first round of voting in February, and then by defeating former Chicago Public School CEO and austerity hatchet man Paul Vallas in the runoff.

The win was stunning. But in many ways, winning was the easy part. As he prepares to take office today as the executive of the United States’ third-largest city, Johnson has a wide range of challenges ahead of him.

This discussion was conducted on April 11, a week after Johnson’s victory, at the storied Chicago venue The Hideout, as an episode of the Jacobin podcast The Dig, guest hosted by Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht. He discussed the election and where Chicago’s working-class movement goes from here with Stacy Davis Gates, president of the CTU; Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a socialist city council member representing Chicago’s 35th ward who was recently named mayor-elect Johnson’s floor leader on the council; and Alex Han, executive director of In These Times magazine, who worked for two decades as a union community and political organizer in Chicago.

You can listen to the episode here. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Micah Uetricht

Before we get into Brandon Johnson’s victory, I want to set the scene. That victory would not have been possible without a decade and a half plus of organizing in Chicago. Stacy, how did we get to this crazy point where there is this social movement rooted in the Chicago Teachers Union that is electing Brandon Johnson mayor?

Stacy Davis Gates

I would like for CTU to be able to take a lot of credit. But that would not be an honest reflection of how this happened. I think about all of the people who came before us; the idea of organizing this boldly in Chicago is rooted into the fabric of Chicago, because it has had to be that. Chicago can be the greatest place on Earth — and it can be the worst place on Earth.

Chicago is a deeply segregated city that breeds generational inequity, trauma, poverty, pain. But what it has also generated is generational resistance. Now, it’s different in different iterations. This one is anchored by a labor movement. SEIU [Service Employees International Union] welcomed us into the labor movement, they told us things that we didn’t know when we came in the very first time. CTU has taken a lot of bold dances; we’ve drawn lines in the sand. And then we carried it out. I’m not taking anything from our membership or our coalition of parents of students or community groups. But it is good to have an anchor that has some money.

Striking Chicago public school teachers and their supporters rally following a march down Michigan Avenue on September 13, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

CTU does play that role. And we are daring other people to play that role with us by organizing every summer. Brandon Johnson went through the Chicago Teachers Union Organizing Institute. There should be a waiting list to get inside that institute this summer. Most of our key leaders who were a part of the campaign, or any action we do, go through the Organizing Institute.

I knew last Tuesday was possible. Ask anyone in this room that worked with me: I am not the one who came on the back of the wagon holding on to the muffler. I have seen the impact of [CTU’s organizing]. It is possible because we’ve built it to be possible.

The second thing that is going to be important in this season is acknowledging that everything is weird. I have never had the feelings that I’ve had in this last week where I wanted to both cry and laugh at the same time. Do not leave your heart and your spirit behind in your reflection of what you are experiencing right now.

This work is from our heart. It is an energy, a spirit, something that we almost can’t even control. That’s why I’d say that the most powerful radical tool that we have is love. Because that is what’s driving this. So what do you do with your heart right now? Because we don’t have the government that we need yet. He’s not walking onto a fifth floor that’s going to welcome the many.

Micah Uetricht

Carlos, it’s almost eight years to the day that we did a panel very similar to this one when you were first elected. Could you reflect on the electoral side as somebody who has been a champion of this movement “before it was cool” in the city of Chicago?

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

I know Stacy wants to be humble. I know she wants to say that CTU cannot claim this win. But there would be no Brandon Johnson as mayor, there would be no progressive movement that is bringing the people into city hall, without a fighting, militant, rank-and-file-led union. So props to the Chicago Teachers Union and the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE).

In 2010, I was twenty-one and a Union Summer for Jobs intern with the AFL-CIO. As part of my internship, I wrote a blog post about Karen Lewis and a speech she gave about how a school is a community, and community is family. She talked about the school privatizers — how when you had an Arne Duncan or Paul Vallas saying that they were going to “turn the school around” and bring in Teach for America and de-professionalize teaching and privatize public education and bring in charter schools and bring in the business mentality that they were forgetting that a school is a community, and community is a family.

The other day I texted Stacy, “Isn’t it crazy that Paul Vallas created his own destruction?” I have been in politics long enough now to know that there are a lot of people who think they’re very smart and that one day they will be mayor of Chicago. You know for a fact that from the moment Vallas went to work at Mayor Richard M. Daley’s office as budget director, he was like, “I’m going to be mayor one day.” He went on to be the CEO of Chicago Public Schools [CPS]. And he went on a rampage, causing so much pain and destruction — not just in CPS, but in New Orleans, in Haiti and Chile, all across the planet.

It was here in Chicago that teachers said, “No. You are not going to de-professionalize our profession, you are not going to disinvest our schools. We demand the schools that our children and our city deserve.” It was that fightback that led to the election of Brandon Johnson as our mayor.

We can never ever, ever forget that this most recent iteration of our progressive movement is built around the infrastructure of a militant labor union that dared to take risks — dared to take a risk in supporting me against a twelve-year incumbent in 2015, that dared to take risks in sending Delia Ramirez to Congress, and dared to take the biggest risk of all this past April 4. So I’m eternally grateful for that.

I feel like we’re going through puberty now. This is uncharted terrain. I wish we had a book that was like, “There are going to be changes in your life.” We don’t have that book, but we do have each other. We have a community that is battle-tested, that has been in the trenches of our most important fights. There are growing pains right when you go through puberty, but it is part of the process of maturing, of growing and hitting your stride.

Alex Han

I think there are a lot of deep parallels between this moment right now and a lot of times in history. On March 30, In These Times sent our latest issue to print, and it included my first editorial as executive director, which assumed that Brandon Johnson would win the mayoral race. There’s a little story in there about this memory of Brandon rolling up on a busted hybrid bike in the fall of 2011 to a campout that we were having in front of the Board of Education, because at that point, that was what parents and teachers and community members had to do in order to have a chance just to make a public comment in the board meeting. We had to camp out overnight on the sidewalks of downtown.

It reminded me of a moment, ten years before then, at the first campout in front of the Board of Ed that I was at, where I met Jitu Brown from the Journey for Justice Alliance; where I met Amisha Patel, who has long been the director of the Grassroots Collaborative. We see these parallels; we see these people who have been engaged in struggle for a very long time, and we are finally able to see the fruit of that fight.

Walmart recently announced it is shutting down four stores in Chicago. I remember the struggle in 2006 and 2007, for a “big box” store living wage ordinance. We struggled to keep Walmart out of Chicago, but if they came in, we wanted the company to pay their workers a living wage. An enormous struggle was waged to shift the public perception of what was possible.

Action Now, a community organization based in Englewood and on the West Side, started knocking on doors and talking to people about a Walmart potentially moving in. At that moment, 80 percent of the residents of Englewood supported Walmart coming. They had no reason not to. They needed jobs. After we were done campaigning, a majority of those residents were against Walmart. Daley still let Walmart in, but that 2007 election that followed was the first kind of crack in the armor of the machine that is coming to fruition today.

I think of all of those struggles of the last twenty years, of decades before that. I think of the great immigrant rights march of 2006, with a million people in the streets. I think about what that inspired in the movement for undocumented people across the country. I think about how that inspired the takeover of the Republic Windows and Doors factory by the members of the United Electrical Workers in 2008. I can see a direct line that has led us to this place.

We’re not used to having power. People are not used to exercising power. We’re in such an amazing, generative place right now. We have to train ourselves to imagine what is possible. We have to train ourselves to lift our vision up from what is directly in front of our feet. Because we have a once in a generation opportunity, and we can’t let that go to waste.

Micah Uetricht

As far as I’m aware, there’s not really anything comparable to this situation in recent American history. Obviously, a figure like Mayor Harold Washington comes to mind. But Washington didn’t emerge from a militant, democratic labor movement in the same way that Brandon Johnson has.

Stacy, talk about how you all are approaching this transition. You’re going from the streets to city hall.

Stacy Davis Gates

We are going to have to stretch in this moment — sweet Jesus, we’re going to have to stretch. We have to acquire a more complex vocabulary. We are piloting the next level of this project. And we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t, just like we didn’t in 2010. But pay attention to where we are in 2023.

Alex Han

There is no other militant union organizer and leader who has been elected to an office of this scale in the United States, I don’t think. In Brazil, in South Africa, in other places of the Global South, we have examples of movement leaders of that kind of scale. I think about Brazil, which is a really interesting parallel to us as an extractive colonial state. In Chicago, we exist in that kind of extractive colonial economy. And we’re still trying to grapple with how we move out of that. How do we provide a place where people can take care of their families, take care of their communities, and do that with dignity? We have to look globally, because we don’t have examples.

I think this project has been one of expanding the tent, expanding the coalition. That coalition is going to require more expansion as it goes forward, for us to control majority power and be in a position where the majority of the people of Chicago see themselves reflected in that, so we can sustain and build on that power.

I have a great amount of trust in Brandon, in a lot of the people around him and the people who have helped him win this campaign, to do the right thing. Are they going to be perfect at every moment? No. And if that was an expectation, then we should just pack it up and go home. But I have a lot of faith, having watched this campaign, having watched the challenges that came onto this campaign, and the way that they were handled, the way that that coalition was expanded, I have a lot of confidence moving forward.

Micah Uetricht

What’s going on right now in this transition period?

Stacy Davis Gates

We do not have the government we deserve yet. We have the government that has been created by the people that forced us into survival. So what we should be doing is praying for our brother every night. That’s number one. Because that is not his space.

The next thing that we need to do is figure out how we hold onto the government we have. Because if we mess this up, they ain’t giving us nothing else. I’m sorry, they ain’t going to even let us fight to take something else. So how do you hold the government that we have, while working to transform it into the government that we deserve?

Because we don’t go in on day one with Treatment Not Trauma. [Editor’s note: Treatment Not Trauma is a proposal endorsed by Johnson that would expand mental health services in Chicago and respond to Chicagoans facing mental health crises with mental health professionals instead of police.] We go in day one powerful, but we don’t go in with the levers to change that right away. So this is where we get to stretch our thought process beyond movement while still holding movement. You see how this has gotten more complex for us? How do we continue to hold, cultivate, grow, expand, make our movement more powerful?

That movement is not the movement it was before Election Day. We have got to run to define this and fill this for the movement. Because if we don’t, we’re not going to be at the starting line, we’re going to be behind the starting line. And as my people know, I believe in all gas.

Number two, we can’t have an effed up government, y’all. Y’all done seen that for the last four years. So what does it look like for our brother to have a competent government? And what will that take? What are those decisions? And what would it look like if our project is being held by an incompetent administrator?

Micah Uetricht

We don’t quite have an exact road map. But there are many examples throughout the world of leftists getting elected to office, and then once they enter office, they have to focus all their attention on governing, and they demobilize their movement’s membership. This has caused problems for left elected officials throughout recent world history.

Stacy Davis Gates

I’m not asking anyone to demobilize. I am actually asking us to find a different gear, because we are on another plateau. This is not about demobilization — our organizer is organizing in another space. We still got to organize in our space.

How are we organizing on the South and West Sides to make sure that people like me, my aunts, my grandma, my mother — that they understand that they don’t have to have the only public service come from the Chicago Police Department? We have greater work to do, because now we have someone who won’t call us crazy. We won’t have someone that will  deliberately lift the bridges. So how do we maximize that?

This is not about demobilizing. Let’s continue to evolve, though.

Micah Uetricht

How does that happen? How do you walk and chew gum at the same time, keep the social movements mobilized while also turning to this question of governing? Mayor Brandon Johnson is going to be up against a lot. The knives are going to be out for him on crime. We’re going to continue to hear from corporations that they’re going to leave the city. The head of the Fraternal Order of Police said there’s going to be “blood in the streets” if Johnson won and a thousand police officers would resign. Concretely, what is the role that the movement that delivered Johnson to this point going to look like under a Johnson administration?

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

United Working Families was founded in 2014, looking toward the 2015 municipal election. Alex spoke about the big box living wage fight; there were a lot of older aldermen who voted to pass the big box living wage ordinance in 2006–7. Then Daley vetoed it, and a lot of aldermen that had stood with labor turned around and voted to sustain the veto. That ordinance, which would have improved the lives of people who worked at corporations worth billions and billions of dollars, died. So labor invested a ton of money to get those who had voted against the ordinance out of office. They flipped a lot of seats in the city council for the first time in a very long time. Within a matter of months, those who had just been elected were all co-opted by the Daley administration.

From that lesson came the notion that we should have a progressive caucus, which was formed in 2011. Leading into the 2015 election, you have the notion that we need independent political power, that we need organization. That is where United Working Families comes from. I ran in 2015 as a UWF endorsed candidate.

I made a commitment that upon my election, I would form a ward-based independent political organization in my community. We have kept that commitment. We created United Neighbors of the 35th Ward. They keep me accountable. They fight to make sure that when I’m taking on big fights in city hall, I have people that are marching with me and people that are moving with me. They also worked to elect other people like 8th district Cook County commissioner Anthony Joel Quezada, who came out of our ranks. So that is what we need: organization.

I spent the past few days calling a lot of aldermen. Let me tell you, it is a lot easier calling them now than it was two weeks ago. But we’re still going to need organization. And we’re still going to need people in communities that are organizing for things like Treatment Not Trauma, that are pushing for things like Bring Chicago Home. [Editor’s note: Bring Chicago Home is a proposal endorsed by Johnson designed to fight homelessness and expand affordable housing, funded by a new tax on real estate transactions over $1 million.]

Because ultimately, that is our biggest strength. That is how a candidate with less money was able to make up the difference in the field on April 4. When it came to the Vallas campaign, a lot of these wards were ghost towns. Vallas had nobody, and the people he was paying to be out there getting out the vote for him — they were like, “We voted for Brandon. This is a paycheck.” There was this one guy, he was like, “Oh, you got to be out there for Brandon? I wanted Brandon. They stuck me with Vallas.”

It is going to be so good to have a mayor that is deeply committed to these issues, that was on the front lines of the fights to implement these progressive policies. That is a powerful organizing tool. But that is not the be-all and end-all. At the end of the day, we know that people power will power the type of change we want to see in city hall.

Alex Han

We should be talking about going beyond Chicago. How do we start these kinds of organizations, where you’re able to identify who are the allies in labor, who are working with parents, who are working in immigrant communities, who are working on police accountability — how do we build these kinds of organizations everywhere? Because we cannot succeed in Chicago if we are alone in Chicago, if we continue to be the only political project that looks and feels and walks and talks the way that we do.

Micah Uetricht

Carlos, I wonder if you could talk specifically about the city council and what the new openings are on the city council. The council has historically been a rubber stamp body for the mayor. That has changed in recent years. Coming out of this most recent election, it seems like a strong opportunity for the council to actually play a significant and powerful role in the city’s politics. And a large number of people have been elected to the council who are committed to this working-class agenda.

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

On April 4, there were a number of city council runoff races, and progressives swept those runoffs. There will be a net increase in the number of truly progressive members of the Chicago City Council. This is also the most diverse city council in the city’s history. It is younger, more female. In the Latino Caucus, we went from like six out of twelve progressives to now nine out of thirteen. That is a phenomenal shift. We went from having two Latinas to having six Latinas, and five of those six Latinas are progressive. We now have three people that are younger than me on the Chicago City Council. And we have Angela Clay, who will be joining the democratic socialist caucus.

Not only do we have a bigger, stronger Progressive Caucus, we now have a mayor that we can work with. And that is a huge change. We’ve been on the defense this whole time. Now we have an opportunity to go on the offense with our agenda.

It’s critically important that we have a council organization, with committees and committee membership roles, that will facilitate a government that can deliver for working people and deliver on the things that Chicagoans overwhelmingly want to see: taxing the rich; passing Bring Chicago Home so that we can get people off the streets and into permanent housing; and passing Treatment Not Trauma so we can have a network of mental health first responders and reopen our public mental health clinics.

Micah Uetricht

The CTU has had to fight against some of the mainstream currents in the Democratic Party since 2010. When CORE was elected office in 2010, the agenda of austerity, neoliberals, school privatization, and attacks on teachers unions was dominant in the Democratic Party. Through striking and other forms of organizing, the CTU has changed that. But there are still many powerful currents in the Democratic Party who are not on board with the CTU agenda. Mayor Brandon Johnson is going to come up against a lot of those forces. How will CTU confront those forces?

Stacy Davis Gates

I’m not afraid of that challenge. They’ve lost the argument on if school personnel get to have a say in [what goes on in schools]. But they still exist. They never go anywhere. So how do you coexist with them in a different capacity? Do they now agree that we need progressive revenue? Because schools have to be funded equitably. Can we get them to agree to that? Do they now agree that schools are communities and that you gotta anchor resources and agency and democracy within that design?

Alex Han

What Stacy just talked about made me think: What if we had had a fair tax campaign with a mayor who was willing to stand on his soapbox and shout from the rafters to vote? We would have won that [state-level] fair tax campaign [that progressives ran in 2020 to change the state of Illinois’s flat individual income tax]. We would have a different tax structure in the state of Illinois today.

We can’t sell ourselves short. On the Left, we’re used to being in a loser mindset. We’re used to losing. I’ve lost a million times over the last twenty-five years. I don’t even understand what it’s like to win. But now, I’m done with losing.

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

Well, I’ve been winning since 2015.

Micah Uetricht

Speaking of which, Carlos, the Northwest Side, where you are an alderman, really showed up for Brandon Johnson. Can you talk about that?

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

Long-term organizing. That is the key. And having a coalition of voters that believe that our government can do better for people, that we can invest in people. Brandon spoke to that.

Before we endorsed Brandon Johnson, I sat down with a lot of candidates who were running. I told them, “Look, when it comes to policing, the position is very nuanced. Voters on the Northwest Side don’t just want to hear that you’re going to add more police, they want to hear about what you’re going to do to invest in the community.” The only candidate who I did not have to tell that to was Brandon Johnson. He knew that already. Because that was his default position, based on his record as an organizer and as an elected official, based on the work he had already done on the county board. And voters rewarded him, because they heard a message that resonated with them, that spoke to their values.

Mayoral candidate Brandon Johnson speaks during a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation on March 18, 2023, in Chicago. (John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune / Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

We’re very proud of the work that we’ve done on the Northwest Side. First we have Illinois state representative Will Guzzardi, elected in 2014 with the support of SEIU and CTU; myself in 2015; in 2016, we have Illinois senator Omar Aquino beating a charter school lobbyist with the support of labor; in 2018, we have Delia Ramirez elected to the House of Representatives; and now we have the election of Brandon Johnson. We’ve had a string of wins.

What I’m most proud of, too, is that the city council passed an ordinance called Empowering Communities for Public Safety. That created sixty-six district councilors, three elected in each police district. We swept those elections on February 28. So now you have a democratic structure of community input when it comes to policing. And the vast majority of those police district councilors endorsed Brandon Johnson in the runoff.

Stacy Davis Gates

The youth turnout — they have to see a reflection of their values, too. Brandon, our mayor-elect, his youth, his ability to convey his experience as an educator in Cabrini was compelling. Our young people have a lot of thoughts about policy and impact. We don’t access that. There was deliberate outreach, there were people in the UWF universe who organize everything walking and talking and were able to bring in other voices.

Micah Uetricht

Where does this movement that’s been built in Chicago go from here?

Alex Han

The week after the teachers’ strike in 2012, Brandon Johnson came to speak to a group of workers that I was working with — restaurant workers, retail workers downtown on the Magnificent Mile. We were looking for somebody to talk about the strike to these workers. They’d been meeting every week for several months. Sometimes five, ten, twenty workers. The week after the teachers’ strike, the room was packed. These workers were eighteen to twenty-one years old. These were workers who had recently graduated from Chicago Public Schools, were trying to figure out how to work two jobs, take care of their family, bouncing from couch to couch, trying to get some credits at city colleges at the same time. And those workers saw that fight of the Chicago Teachers Union and were inspired.

Brandon Johnson came and spoke to them. And he told them about taking on a fight that seemed impossible, a fight that was for all of us — and winning. And so those workers set their sights higher and took on another fight that was for all of us.

What comes out of this? What are the next fights going to be? How do we expand? Who is a part of this project? How are we expanding that community? And how are we growing?

Carlos Ramirez-Rosa

Our movement must grow, and our movement must deliver. There are people who are fearful of walking down the block outside of their home; there are people who are struggling to make ends meet. We have to deliver for those people. And in the act of delivering for those people, we will win their trust, and we will see the ability of our movement to grow. And in order to deliver for those people, we have to have a governing coalition that grows.

We have done a lot of work over many, many years. We have won an elected school board, we have won a path toward community control of the police, and we have removed the carve-outs from the Welcoming City ordinance so that we can be a true sanctuary for undocumented immigrants. And now we have to win so much more.

As long as we stay true to our values, and as long as we continue to understand that it’s organization and unity that is the basis of our success, I know that we will be a shining example for this nation. People will want to replicate what they’re seeing in Chicago.

Stacy Davis Gates

I do want to honor Karen Lewis. Because she figured out in 2013 how to redirect our energy after a huge disappointment. Fifty school closings. Fifty. It still hurts, ten years later. But Karen got up the next day, and she gave our movement direction. It is so hard to give people something in a loss, because you ain’t even got it. She said, “We’ve tried at the negotiating table. We’ve gone to your Board of Education meetings.” And she said, “Look, you keep telling me to hold you accountable for everything. So we’re going to hold you accountable. We’re going to talk to voters.”

Remember, electoral politics is not something a movement usually does, because it betrays us. There is great trepidation and peril in this work. People suspended that. And I want to honor everyone who suspended that. We can have nice things. We deserve this.