Fixing Chicago's Fraternal Order of Police

February 13, 2024

The FOP needs to return to basics

Talk to any unionized Chicago public school teacher affiliated with Members First Caucus and they will tell you the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), under the leadership of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), has undergone some seismic changes.

Now in the middle of its fifth term in office, CORE was founded in 2008 and has controlled the CTU since the late Karen Lewis assumed the CTU presidency in 2010. Following Lewis’ resignation in 2014 over health concerns, Jesse Sharkey assumed control and oversaw the CTU’s rapid descent into radicalism. A soapbox Marxist, Sharkey’s elevation was accompanied by a breathtaking shift in priorities from enforcing the contract with the Board of Education and concentrating on the wellbeing of CTU members to establishing a fully-fledged political machine.

As this transformation from advocating on behalf of members to political organization occurred, a deep disconnect between members and CORE leadership has developed. According to members of Members First Caucus, the rank-and-file has had virtually no influence on major decisions, transparency has been eliminated, and CORE leadership has flouted the rules in a dogged pursuit of its political goals.

In one of the earliest examples of CORE disregarding CTU membership, the leadership of the CORE ruling caucus resolved to sell Fewkes Tower in 2014. Though Fewkes had been an asset of the CTU for 50 years, CORE leaders presented the sale of the building to its members as a fait accompli and deposited nearly $62 million from the sale into the CTU Foundation.

These millions would serve to fund CORE’s “revolution” for Chicago. Flush with cash, CORE embarked on a spending spree in which the radical caucus purchased the current CTU building on West Carroll and renovated the property at great cost. Of the remaining funds from the sale of Fewkes Tower, CORE leaders turned the CTU Foundation into its private ATM from which it disbursed donations to its preferred community groups with whom they were politically aligned. The decision as to which community groups received CTU funds, however, was left entirely in the hands of four CTU officers, all four of whom held the dual position of directors of the CTU Foundation. Shut out of the decision making was the rank-and-file.

Prior to CORE seizing control of the CTU, union leadership had routinely provided members of the House of Delegates (HOD) with a comprehensive list of political candidates to whom PAC money was contributed. The record distributed to HOD members also included the amount donated to each lawmaker. The custom of keeping delegates briefed over political expenses was abruptly halted in 2018. Though the grounds for ending the practice were never articulated, when delegates inquired with CORE leadership for a reporting of PAC funds, then-president Jesse Sharkey scoffed and told delegates to browse for the information on Illinois Sunshine.

Akin to other labor unions, the CTU maintains a network of committees which direct and inform union policy, agendas, and resolutions. Under CORE, committee chairs and members are handpicked by the president and representation on each panel is dominated by CORE allies. One committee in particular, the PAC/Legislative Committee, considered foremost, is carefully controlled by CTU officers. According to affiliates of the Members First Caucus, CTU officers meticulously control political contributions and prohibit committee members from taking part in to whom or the amount of CTU largesse that is handed over to preferred political candidates.

Three years following the sale of Fewkes Tower, CORE leaders extracted another $5 million from the CTU Foundation. A move performed in the dark of night, CORE did so without the consent of either rank-and-file or the House of Delegates. A deceitful move by CORE leadership, CTU members only learned of the loan obligation in May 2018, when CORE allowed members access to an annual audit report. Despite strong protestations from union members, CORE has refused to release audit reports for the last four years.

Part of a troubling pattern since CORE gained control of the CTU, the consequences of CORE frequently acting without the approval of its members has left the CTU deeply divided and distrustful of current leadership. Though 15 years ago it was unthinkable a Chicago union would adopt such undemocratic methods and risk alienating members, similar circumstances have recently surfaced at the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge 7.

As maintained by several rank-and file members of the FOP, requests to review documents such as board minutes, financials, treasurer reports, and audit committee reviews have been denied or permitted under very narrow time constraints. FOP members say prior to FOP President John Catanzara assuming leadership over the union, bids to examine documents were fulfilled without caveat or delay.

In addition to refusing members unfettered access to union documents, FOP members say changes to union rules have become arbitrary, often occurring after requests to review official documents are lodged. FOP members state the union’s board has developed the practice of introducing bylaws without assenting to FOP procedure established in the union constitution. An unconstitutional exercise, rank-and-file who seek answers to rule changes or dispute limitations on the review of documents are brushed off and told to respect new regulations.

Though these revelations are concerning, more troubling is questions over financial activities under current leadership. FOP members state union documents reveal board members profligate life at the expense of member dues. A recent discovery in meeting records unveiled a lavish feast at which board members dined one evening at Lawry’s The Prime Rib. While the topics discussed at the dinner table are unknown, the board’s visit to Lawry’s cost the rank-and-file an epic $4,500. In another instance, members tell of thousands of dollars in member dues spent for the purposes of entertainment wholly unrelated to FOP affairs.

Outside financial issues, close examination of board minutes viewed by members shows board members ridiculing and degrading dues-paying members and a foolish proposal to impose a fee on members to view board minutes. Doubly appalling, amid worsening transparency and misuse of member dues, rank-and-file say in several instances, the FOP, citing cost, has denied petitions to file grievances.

The refusal to perform a fundamental duty on behalf of members, rank-and-file assert if thousands can be spent on the finest food money can buy or big-ticket musical entertainment, the union should acknowledge and act on the authenticity and righteousness of members’ concerns.

The rank-and-file members of the Fraternal Order of Police are losing trust and confidence in current FOP leadership. Identical to the CTU, the main function of the police union is to enforce the members’ contract with the City Chicago and faithfully represent the collective interests of its membership.

To reverse the downturn in member trust, FOP leadership should do more than end extravagant socializing on members’ earnings. The current FOP needs a reminder membership dues are, above all, to serve rank-and-file needs: Support for legal defense fund, grievances, and to pay representatives to negotiate labor agreements with the City of Chicago.

To regain the confidence of members, the FOP should also return to giving precedence to members’ needs and requests.

The FOP has an obligation to recognize members’ legitimate inquiries or concerns and to channel and shape appeals for assistance in constructive ways to find solutions to their troubles. Similarly, to counter the erosion to transparency, the FOP is compelled to remove limitations placed on requests for FOP institutional documents, scrupulously observe its bylaws, and explore methods to encourage wider engagement with members.

The FOP is slowly losing touch with its members. For the FOP leadership to avoid facing the sort of disharmony which has overtaken and prevails at the CTU, the police union should return to its founding principles and traditions.

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