What Karen Lewis Taught Us "Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis" by Chicago Man is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

What Karen Lewis Taught Us

On Monday, February 8, 2021, Chicago lost a titan of the labor movement. Former Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis died after her multi-year battle with brain cancer. Serving as CTU president from 2010 to 2018, Lewis’ pioneering leadership revived the CTU after years of hibernation under Mayor Richard M. Daley. In doing so, she not only secured a new legacy for her union, winning a historic strike against Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2012, but turned the tide on charter school movement and urban neoliberalism more generally. By pushing back against Mayor Emanuel’s agenda for education “reform,” Lewis made it clear that Chicago’s public schools would not be subjected to free-market fantasies. Teachers were not the problem; the problem was austere budgets that deprived schools and communities of needed resources. 

The movement for neoliberal education reforms began in Chicago as a backlash to Mayor Harold Washington’s progressive legacy. Despite being a social movement politician, Washington’s mayoralty was not without labor disputes. In September of 1987, the CTU decided to strike after bitter negotiations between it and the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) board broke down. Under President Jacqueline Vaugh’s leadership, the CTU slogged through a painful nineteen-day strike before agreeing to a new contract that offered up to 8% raises over two years and a reduction in class sizes by two students in kindergarten through the third grade. 

Washington was in an awkward position throughout the strike. In February of that same year, he managed to get the Chicago Federation of Labor endorsement, despite the Executive Committee recommending neutrality in his reelection bid. The CTU delegates were strong supporters of Washington, and partially the reason the vote for his endorsement was able to overcome the “neutrality” recommendation. At the same time, he was under intense pressure from the media, and in some cases parents, to end the strike as quickly as possible. To avoid alienating potential allies, Washington positioned himself as an arbitrator who wished the best for both parties. He did not outright attack the CTU but did make public comments emphasizing the importance of the school board’s fiscal responsibility that seemed to undermine their arguments. However, once a breakthrough seemed likely, he ordered his aides to pressure both sides to come to an agreement. 

Washington used the labor dispute as a platform for sweeping educational justice. Within a week of the strike’s settlement, he hosted a raucous public forum, with nearly a thousand participants, on Chicago’s public school system. The main issues were to deal with the cumbersome and overly bureaucratic nature of CPS, the near-dictatorial power of principals, and the lack of funding for critical services. Washington ensured Chicagoans there would be a complete overhaul of the system, promising that parents, teachers, and community members would all play a role. Unfortunately, Washington did not live to see his vision of educational justice. Approximately six weeks after the public forum, he suffered a major heart attack and died. Shocked and grief-stricken, the social justice movements inspired by his administration were disarrayed.

Washington’s untimely death stalled the movement for educational justice, but it did not derail it altogether. In the following year, the Illinois legislature passed the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. The Reform Act replaced tenure for principals with 4-year contracts, expanded the Board of Education to fifteen seats, and created a School Board Nominating Commission, which would nominate board members appointed by the mayor. The Reform Act’s most radical change was the decentralization of particular oversight and administration functions of Chicago’s public schools. The Reform Act created Local School Councils (LSCs) for all the five hundred and ninety-five public schools in Chicago. The LSCs provided new opportunities for parents, teachers, community members, and even high school students to determine their schools’ direction. Intense local and participatory control of the school system had occurred before in major cities, but never on the scale that Chicago planned to enact it. 

The Chicago machine and the state’s rightwing forces resented the changes made by the Reform Act. Washington’s neighborhood empowerment model disrupted traditional sources of power. When the machine reasserted itself with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s triumphant elector victory, it set to dismantle the educational justice movement initiated under Washington. Working with state Republicans, Daley supported the passage of the 1995 Chicago School Reform Amendatory Act. The Amendatory Act kept the LSCs but limited their power and funding and dramatically reorganized the Board of Education. Instead of its members appointed through a consociated process involving the mayor’s offices, parents, and community groups, all its members were appointed directly by the mayor. A Chief Executive Officer replaced the superintendent’s role, and teachers had their bargaining rights restricted. 

The 1996 Illinois Charter Schools Act followed. Initially, the number of charters allowed by the state was marginal. The 1996 Act capped the charters at forty-five: fifteen in Chicago, fifteen in the suburbs, and fifteen in the rest of the state. However, it did not take long for charters to increase. In 2003, the cap increased to sixty, with an additional fifteen located in Chicago. In 2004, CPS CEO Arne Duncan released his “Renaissance 2010,” which aimed to create a hundred charter schools in Chicago by 2010. “Renaissance 2010” was never realized, but advocates of charter schools did come close. In 2009, the state legislature again lifted the cap on charter schools, doubling it to one hundred and twenty for the state, with seventy of them located in Chicago. 

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was especially enthusiastic about the neoliberal education reform movement. Soon after being elected in 2011, Mayor Emanuel promised sweeping reforms in Chicago’s public school system, including the closure or “turnaround”—the act of layoff an entire school’s staff in mass—of failing schools, extending the school day and adding additional days onto the academic calendar, and introducing a system of “merit pay” for teachers. Emanuel’s robust educational reform agenda was clearly biased to favor charters and against public school teachers. Despite their students having similarly poor performances on state exams, the mayor’s criteria for “failing” schools excluded charters. Meanwhile, teachers would not be proportionally compensated for longer hours and an extended academic calendar.” Instead, they were expected to work more on the same salaries. 

On the surface, Mayor Rahm Emanuel had every reason to expect the CTU would embrace his reform agenda. At the time, his agenda was part of the mainstream Democratic Party and strongly supported by the beloved Obama administration. However, in the preceding years to the Emanuel mayoralty, a significant cultural change had occurred within the CTU. Frustrated by the leadership’s capitulation under Mayor Daley, a group of teachers formed the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in 2008. Lewis, who joined the CTU in 1988, was one of CORE’s most active members. During the union elections of 2010, CORE ran an aggressive grassroots campaign against the moderate United Progressive Caucus. In a run-off election, CORE’s slate of candidates won 60% of the vote, including Karen Lewis as CTU’s new president. 

The change in leadership was immediately evident. Unlike with Mayor Daley, Mayor Emanuel’s education agenda triggered a strong backlash. On February 17th, 2012, about a hundred activists staged a sit-in at Brian Piccolo Elementary School—a low-income and minority-majority school in West Humboldt Park—to prevent it from becoming a “turnaround” school. On the same day, Lewis announced CTU’s wage proposal for its new contract with CPS. Knowing that Emanuel would force an extended school day and academic calendar, the CTU came to the bargaining table with unapologetic 30% raise over the next two years.

The new wave of activism invigorated the CTU, but the union’s struggles were complicated by further regressive changes on the state level. In June of 2012, Illinois’s liberal governor Pat Quinn signed into law SB 7. SB 7 required unions representing public school teachers to get 75% approval of the entire bargaining unit to authorize a strike, an independent fact-finding procedure—which can take months—before any strike, and restrictions on grievances and seniority rights. The passage of the bill was a defeat for the CTU in two respects. First, despite its leadership being outspoken critics of the legislation, CTU’s parent union—the Illinois Federation of Teachers—was amenable to the bill and urged compromise. Second, the bill became law during its contract negotiations with CPS. The 75% approval of the entire bargaining unit for strike authorization significantly reduced the CTU’s power while CPS and Mayor Emanuel simultaneously tried to get teachers to work more hours with less pay and job security. 

Despite SB7 (or because of it), the CTU went on strike on September 10th. More than 90% of its entire twenty-five-thousand-member bargaining unit voted to approve the strike. The strike ended up becoming a resounding rejection of Mayor Emanuel.  At issue was not only his education agenda, but his entire neoliberal philosophy. SEIU Local 1, which was engaged in its own fight with Mayor Emanuel over janitorial contracts, agreed to respect the CTU’s picket line, effectively having CPS’s one thousand five hundred janitors join in the work stoppage. Members of the Mental Health Movement joined the picket lines to draw connections between Mayor Emanuel’s attack on paraprofessionals and the closing of six community mental health clinics. Chicago’s Occupy Wall Street activists also joined and were credited with bestowing Mayor Emanuel with the moniker “Mayor 1%.” 

Four days later after the strike began, an agreement was reached. The new contract prevented CPS from implementing the bulk of Mayor Emanuel’s reforms. CPS backed away from “merit pay” and agreed to only follow the minimum requirements for teacher evaluations under SB 7. The two sides agreed to an extended school day, but with considerable compromises. Teachers got an extended midday break to prepare for classes, students got an extended lunch hour, and recesses were now mandatory across the district. The settlement also ensured that half of the teachers who were laid off in “turnaround” schools would get priority hiring for new positions, that teachers would be reimbursed up to $250 if they spent their own money on classroom supplies, and that CPS would agree to hire five hundred new teachers and support staff.  

Across the country, CTU’s victory aggravated the neoliberal education reform movement. In the first chapter of the book, Teachers Versus the Public—published two years after the CTU strike—the authors depict Karen Lewis as a brash union thug. Instead of Lewis’s militant unionism, the authors argued, teachers’ unions should adopt the “reform unionism” of the American Federation of Teachers’ President Randi Weingarten. It would be better if teachers accept the idea that “teacher unions should collaborate with management in the process of reforming schools, accommodating (and shaping) proposals for change typically deemed anathema to union interest.”  

Fortunately, Lewis never had an appetite for such accommodations. She would continue to lead the union until 2018 until she was forced to step down due to health issues related to her brain cancer diagnosis. Her time as CTU president was undoubtedly a turning point for the Chicago labor movement. After Lewis, unions in the city—or at least the CTU—were no longer willing to accept a neoliberal agenda just because it was advocated by politicians with a “D” next to their names. Instead, politicians would have to prove their loyalty to teachers and public education by supporting policies that made conditions better in the classroom. Schools, the CTU argued, should receive more funding, and teachers should be treated with dignity. Those were the real problems with public education.

None of the CTU’s more recent accomplishments, such as the gain made during the 2019 strike against Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the more recent impact bargaining over COVID19, would have been possible without Lewis’ initial leadership. More so than any other figure in Chicago, she will be remembered for changing the national conversation on public education. As a teacher, the greatest lesson that she taught was that public schools, as part of the common good, are sacred institutions, that people working in them are worthy of respect, and that fighting for your community, regardless of the odds, is always a worthy endeavor.