AFT honors a longtime champion of public education

“As a chemistry teacher, active in my union, I dreamed of a union that was vocal, engaged, productive, creative and visionary,” says Karen Lewis. When she became president of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, Lewis worked endlessly to make that dream a reality. In the process, she earned a place among the icons of the labor movement. Her trailblazing leadership helped shift the narrative on public education in Chicago; that’s what makes Karen Lewis an AFT hero.

Karen Lewis

When Lewis took the helm at CTU, it put her and the thousands of teachers and paraprofessionals represented by the union on a collision course with newly elected Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had embraced the idea of corporate education reform.

When asked about the early days of the corporate education reform movement in Chicago, Lewis said she saw it as the beginning of a philanthropic, benign-looking effort to help schools. “The next thing we knew it was charter this, charter that,” says Lewis. “They wanted to tie our evaluations to test scores, usurp tenure and seniority. They were absolutely winning this battle,” she says.

Karen Lewis in front of CTU members

In 2012, after months of contentious negotiations with Mayor Emanuel and his appointed school board, the CTU decided to go on strike. Although lawmakers in the Illinois Legislature passed a measure—intended to prevent teachers from striking—that required 75 percent of CTU members to authorize a strike, 98 percent of Lewis’ members voted to strike.

“It’s pretty difficult to resist when the people who are doing the resisting don’t have much voice. So it was about amplifying parent voice, amplifying student voice and making them strong together,” says Lewis. Because she had done the work necessary to build solidarity, the union garnered unprecedented support from parents and the community when the teachers and paraprofessionals went on strike. After nine days, CTU members returned to the classroom—they had made their voices heard and reached an acceptable agreement with the school district.

Karen Lewis at Chicago rally

“They started talking seriously about things we were very concerned about; and all of sudden, they found money they didn’t have before,” says Lewis. “What we got out of it was a sense [that] … we are going to be backed by our communities, [and] we are going to back our communities in their fights.” Lewis and her members were energized by “this notion that there’s a way to fight back.”

Lewis retired from leading the CTU in 2018 to focus on her health, but continues to advocate for public education. When CTU members once again took to the picket lines last year, Lewis spoke out by writing : “I stand in solidarity with each and every teacher, PSRP, clinician, nurse and librarian and urge them to stand firm in their fight and remain united in the struggle for the schools that our students and families deserve.”

[Adrienne Coles]