If 35 minutes behind a microphone after months of silence proves anything about Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, it’s this: She hasn’t changed much.
Lewis spoke to a crowd of people for the first time since being diagnosed with a brain tumor last fall. At that time, she was considering a run against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“I was planning on running for mayor and in doing so I intended to lift up the voices of marginalized people in the city of Chicago,” Lewis said at a City Club of Chicago luncheon Monday.
“That also meant that if my mayoral motorcade was blowing through red lights, I was planning on digging deep into my purse to pay those fines,” she said, referring to a recent CBS investigation.
Lewis also took aim at newly seated Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.
“He’s wasted no time attacking the wages of working class people, attacking their labor unions and threatening massive cuts to social services programs, which help the most vulnerable people in our state,” Lewis said. “He’s not some easy-going, blue-jean-wearing, $20-dollar-watch-having good guy who’s coming to save the day. He is Scott Walker on steroids.”
But unlike Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Rauner will have to work with a Democratic state legislature to pass any laws that would limit the rights of public-sector unions.
When asked for a response to Lewis’ comparison, Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said, “Governor Rauner is happy to see Ms. Lewis back in action. He continues to admire her tenacity and spirit.”
Despite her fiery remarks about politicians, Lewis said she remains focused on the next teachers contract and has no intentions of running for office.
“If you want well-resourced schools, educators with tenure and job security, it’s going to cost money,” Lewis said. “We shouldn’t shy away from this.”
Similar to what it did in 2012, the teachers union released a blueprint to outline the issues it plans to push during negotiations. The latest white paper, titled “A Just Chicago: Fighting for the City Our Students Deserve,” lists a host of things, a number of which are outside of what the union can bargain for under law.
Those include: stable jobs for all Chicagoans, decriminalizing marijuana possession, expanding public housing, and reforming the state’s formula for funding education.
Lewis also said although negotiations have just begun, the union would be ready to strike again if talks fail.
The Chicago arm of Democrats for Education Reform, which supports Emanuel, issued a statement late Monday chiding Lewis and the union for bringing up the possibility of a strike.
“If the CTU hopes to use another strike as revenge if Mayor Emanuel wins re-election it would be even worse,” the statement read. “There are teachers in every Chicago neighborhood doing amazing work who do not wish to be dragged into the CTU’s single-minded political mission.”
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.