Teaching Profession Obituary

Karen Lewis, Firebrand Former Chicago Teachers Union President, Dead at 67

By Katherine Rosenberg-Douglas, John Byrne & Juan Perez Jr., Chicago Tribune — February 08, 2021 9 min read
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago teachers union listens to a question after a meeting of the union's House of Delegates in Chicago. Lewis says she is stepping down because her battle with brain cancer has made it impossible to do her job "at my best." Lewis said Friday, June 22, 2018, that she's submitted her retirement papers to the Chicago Board of Education. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

Karen Lewis, the firebrand former Chicago Teachers Union president who led a seven-day strike in 2012 and was a one-time mayoral hopeful who was unable to run for office because of a cancer diagnosis in October 2014, has died, the CTU confirmed Monday. She was 67.

Details of her death were not immediately available. The news came a day after the union, whose current administrators have said “will always and forever be the house that Karen built,” announced a tentative reopening deal with Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot that, if approved through a union vote, would avert a strike.

Lewis’ tenure as CTU president was marked by an unprecedented number of school closings, teacher layoffs, charter school expansion, crumbling school finances and rancorous contract talks with the city’s Board of Education.

In September 2012, she led the city’s first teachers’ strike in a quarter-century and stood at the helm of demonstrations that underscored smoldering national debates over public education reform. That gave her the political muscle to consider a run for mayor against then-incumbent Rahm Emanuel, a man she once described as the “murder mayor.” Lewis said in a later interview that once doctors told her of a malignant brain tumor detected near the surface of her frontal lobe, she knew her plans to take over City Hall were finished.

While she stepped down as union chief in 2018, the CTU on Monday said “Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement.”

“She bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers’ Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day.”

Emanuel and Lewis developed a begrudging regard for one another as the union reached agreement with the administration to avoid a second strike, their bitter, sometimes profane early fights receded in the rearview mirror and Lewis’ cancer diagnosis sidelined her as a political rival. Emanuel tweeted his condolences Monday.

“Karen Lewis was a tough and tireless champion for public education and for Chicago’s children, one who was never afraid to fight for what she believed in,” he wrote. “While we often found ourselves on different sides of the debate, I grew to have enormous respect for Karen and our regular conversations were a benefit to me and to the city of Chicago. May her memory be a blessing.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot also tweeted condolences on behalf of herself and wife Amy Eshleman to Lewis’ “family, loved ones, friends and CTU family during this extremely difficult time.”

Ald. Rossanna Rodriguez Sanchez, 33rd, was among the first local politicians to make a statement on social media, offering her condolences to Lewis’ family and “all our CTU siblings.”

“She was a fighter and a treasure for this city. She will be sorely missed and her memory forever imprinted in the fabric of Chicago,” Rodriguez Sanchez wrote.

Born Karen Jennings, Lewis grew up in Hyde Park. Her parents were both CPS teachers. She attended Kozminski Elementary School and Kenwood Academy High School, according to her official union biography, before accepting early admission at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

She later transferred to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. Lewis frequently pointed out she was the sole Black woman in the college’s graduating class of 1974, but it was not a happy time. Dartmouth began enrolling women in 1972.

“Dartmouth was a really bad experience for me, but it made me stronger,” she told the school alumni magazine in an interview published in 2011.

“I was the only Black woman in my class, and it was clear that women weren’t wanted. That did teach me that top-down decisions usually take a while for people to buy into.”

Lewis didn’t immediately aim for a career in education. She studied chemistry and then moved to Oklahoma with her first husband for medical school. But she quickly soured on medicine and returned to Chicago.

She eventually became a substitute chemistry teacher, saying later it was something to fill time while determining “what I wanted to do when I grew up.” Lewis was hired full time and found a job she came to love.

Lewis taught chemistry for almost 20 years at Sullivan High School and Lane Tech College Prep before taking a post at King College Prep High School in Kenwood, blocks from where she grew up.

Lewis, whose second husband, John, was also a CPS teacher, became a member of the CTU in 1988. She also held executive roles at the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers.

By 2008, Lewis was an active union delegate fighting then-CPS chief Arne Duncan on school closings and other issues. She was at a January 2009 school board meeting where newly installed CPS chief Ron Huberman was booed by a packed room of parents and educators.

District critics, including Lewis’ caucus, saw former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s efforts to push his Renaissance 2010 plan to open 100 new schools as a way to put more privately run schools in gentrifying neighborhoods and get rid of union teachers. Huberman had been Daley’s chief of staff.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that this is not an education plan, it is a business plan. It is a real estate developer plan that has nothing to do with education,” Lewis said at the time.

Lewis ran for the president’s job a year-and-a-half later in a hotly contested election. Backed by her Caucus of Rank and File Educators, Lewis ousted two-term President Marilyn Stewart in a runoff election.

Lewis immediately promised a more vigorous stand against job cuts and class size increases, days before the Board of Education held an emergency meeting to grant authority to determine layoffs and class sizes. She also vowed to fight the expansion of charter schools and standardized tests.

The union confronted a familiar scenario: a budget crisis, school closings, the growth of charter schools, and efforts to be tougher in evaluating teacher performance.

In 2011, amid public debate over a longer school day, Lewis filed an unfair labor practices complaint against CPS. Emanuel, she said, fired a profanity-filled tirade at her during a City Hall meeting on the topic.

“Everybody knows who Rahm Emanuel is. He wants to win. He’s dirty. He’s lowdown. He’s a street fighter,” Lewis said at the time. “This is Rahm Emanuel trying to prove a point, trying to flex his muscles. He’s trying to put his fingers in our faces because he ultimately wants to bust this union, bust all the unions.”

It took an eight-hour meeting later that year for the union and school district to reach a compromise over efforts to extend the school day.

Lewis’ occasionally sharp tongue could also land her in trouble, as it did at a Seattle union leader conference late in 2011. Lewis joked about the lisp of Arne Duncan, who by then had become U.S. Education Secretary and tangled with unions over initiatives including charter schools. Lewis also joked about her own time in college, saying she “self-medicated” with marijuana.

Lewis later called Duncan to apologize, saying she could “never let frustrations get in the way of carrying out my responsibilities as a leader.”

Larger controversies loomed.

Chicago’s teachers hadn’t gone on strike since they walked off the job for 19 days in 1987, as Daley borrowed heavily to fund pay raises and improved retirement benefits that bought years of labor peace.

Teacher strikes were relatively common before that—Chicago teachers walked out nine times between 1969 and 1987 during biennial fights over salaries and working conditions. The latest strike led some to fear a return to a time when the district and teachers fought constantly over pay and job security.

During protracted contract negotiations in 2012, the CTU demanded raises amounting to 30 percent over two years and smaller class sizes. CPS countered with an offer of a 2 percent annual increase.

State lawmakers had overwhelmingly supported legislation that required 75 percent of total union membership to vote for a strike. Amid raucous demonstrations and speeches from Lewis, that proved no problem when the vote was held in June—nearly 90 percent of members said they’d back a strike.

Months later, both sides remained at an impasse over annual raises, benefits and the rights of veteran teachers who are laid off, though CPS agreed to hire nearly 500 teachers so students could be placed in a longer school day without extending the workday of most teachers.

On the Sunday after the first week of classes, the union announced its more than 25,000 members would walk off the job.

The strike lasted seven days before union delegates voted to come back to class. Teachers won double-digit salary increases and a recall policy for teachers laid off by school closings. The district solidified its plans for a longer school day and won a teacher evaluation system.

In October 2012, with new district CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in charge, Lewis and the union prepared for a new fight over school closings. Lewis said she still had her boxing gloves ready.

Seven months later, the school board voted to shut 49 elementary schools and transfer thousands of children to new classroom settings—endorsing a mayoral vision for a downsized district that Emanuel said would fight a woeful fiscal picture and allow the more efficient distribution of resources.

Lewis vowed to leverage voter anger over closings to block the reelection of Emanuel, who had said he was prepared to take a political hit for the closings.

Lewis issued what’s perhaps her most noted attack against Emanuel during such battles, one eventually immortalized in the CNN “Chicagoland” television special on the city’s woes. “Rahm Emanuel has become the ‘murder mayor,’ ” Lewis said. “He is murdering public services. Murdering our ability to maintain public sector jobs and now he has set his sights on our public schools.”

Lewis was appointed to her third three-year term in April 2016, when the CTU’s governing body voted to cancel an election for officers because of a lack of opposition to a slate led by Lewis and Vice President Jesse Sharkey. Her final term would be consumed by yet another intense budget crisis and dramatic contract negotiations with then CPS CEO Forrest Claypool—but also her gradual departure from public life.

She used a City Club speech soon after her reappointment, and days after the union formally opened the door to a strike, to call Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner “the new ISIS recruit” amid a legislative brawl over education funding. By September, CTU members voted to authorize a strike.

While teacher evaluations, testing, and a longer school day were part of the dynamic in talks leading up to the 2012 strike, Lewis’ last round of talks focused more on money: health insurance benefits, pay raises and the district’s desire to end its practice of paying the bulk of teachers’ pension contributions.

Lewis sought to minimize her role, saying she took her orders from members, but acknowledged that efforts to give members a bigger role in union decisions made it tougher to settle a deal. Ultimately, both sides reached a tentative agreement minutes before a midnight strike deadline in October 2016.

A year later, a stroke sparked by her brain cancer treatment left Lewis needing extensive physical therapy. Then in June, weeks after undergoing brain surgery, Lewis said she would step down from her post. Lewis’ formal departure from her teaching role came as the union faces internal political divisions, questions about its finances, and changes in the roles of some of its trusted leaders.

“In my fight against brain cancer, I am reminded through my faith that when storms come, the brave do not jump overboard,” Lewis told CTU members in an open letter published in August. “They do not abandon ship, nor do they panic. Even if the captain is down and storm clouds are gathering, the rest of the crew must steer the ship on its charted course.”

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Juan Perez Jr. is a former Chicago Tribune reporter.

Copyright (c) 2021, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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