Karen Lewis, Chicago Union Leader Who Set Off A Wave Of Teacher Activism, Dies

Karen Lewis
Karen Lewis revitalized the Chicago Teachers Union and helped inspire unions and teachers across the country to fight for quality public schools. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo
Karen Lewis
Karen Lewis revitalized the Chicago Teachers Union and helped inspire unions and teachers across the country to fight for quality public schools. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo

Karen Lewis, Chicago Union Leader Who Set Off A Wave Of Teacher Activism, Dies

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Karen Lewis, the woman credited with resurrecting the Chicago Teachers Union and helping to revive teacher unions across the country, has died.

“Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement,” the union said in a statement. “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.”

Lewis rose to prominence in 2012, when she led the first teachers strike in Chicago in 25 years — a walkout many say inspired a wave of teacher activism and the beginning of the Red for Ed, the national movement in which teachers went on strike to demand better pay and working conditions.

The 2012 Chicago Teachers Strike showed teachers they could take on the powerful and win.

Lewis served as president of the CTU from 2010 to 2018, when she resigned due to health issues. She was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014. She was 67 years old. Her death was confirmed by the union. 

Lewis was born on July 26, 1953. A proud daughter of Chicago Public School teachers, she went to Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park on the South Side. She left her junior year to go to Mount Holyoke College and then transferred to Dartmouth College. She said she was the only African American woman in Dartmouth’s graduating class of 1974.

Before becoming president of the teachers union, she was a chemistry teacher in Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.

Lewis is remembered as being passionate and outspoken, but also highly intelligent, wildly funny and warm, and someone who always recalled details about people’s lives and asked about them.

“She had a boisterous love of life and she made people feel seen,” said Jackson Potter, a friend and one of the founders of Lewis’ union caucus, called CORE. “Though she was childless, she felt like all the babies in the world were her children.”

Karen Lewis 2012 strike
Karen Lewis works the crowd before addressing union members during a rally on Sept. 15, 2012 during the teachers strike. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo

He said Lewis’ ability to make people laugh helped her be a good leader. It allowed her to bridge divides and gave people a way to relate to her.

Potter said Lewis’ humor and warmth also allowed her to get away with espousing what were considered radical ideas at the time.

She attacked the rich and the powerful, who she saw as trying to insert themselves into public education through charter schools and other corporate-inspired education reforms. At a rally in Union Park in October 2012, Lewis held up a blank sheet of paper. She said it listed the qualifications of the people making education policy.

“What’s on it?” she asked. “Nothing, nothing, nothing.” The crowd that packed the park then started chanting, “nothing, nothing, nothing.”

She went on to make the argument that teachers want to be collaborative, but once competition is introduced, it takes away the desire to work together for the common good of children. She also saw the introduction of market approaches into public education as devaluing the work of teachers and siphoning money away from regular public schools, a process she said hurt children.

“I don’t care what they say, ‘We will not harm our children’” she said. “You are asking us to do harm to children. I don’t think people understand that.”

Lewis also moved the union away from bread and butter issues, like pay and benefits, to broader issues of social justice. Under her tenure, the union put forth a manifesto called The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve that laid bare the wide distance between what CPS said it should provide students and what it does.

The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve called for teachers to be treated as professionals, for fully staffed schools with nurses and social workers and for lower class sizes.

“We needed someone to swing”

Lewis’ message resonated because she was willing to stand up for teachers at a time when teachers were under attack and somewhat downtrodden. She unapologetically labeled people as villains and enemies if she thought they disrespected public school teachers and public education.

Chief among them was former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Early on in her tenure as union president, she emerged from a meeting with Emanuel and revealed he had sworn at her. This came after she called the longer school day he was pushing a “babysitting” initiative.

“He jumped out of his chair and said, F-you Lewis,” she recalled. “And I jumped out of my chair and said, who the F do you think you are talking to? I don’t work for you.”

Karen Lewis 2013
Karen Lewis led the fight in 2013 against efforts to close large numbers of under-enrolled Chicago public schools. CPS ultimately closed 50 elementary schools. Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo

Lewis said she went on to use “infinitely more colorful South Side language,” as did the mayor.

Nora Flanagan, who taught with Lewis at Lane Tech High School on the North Side, said she thinks teachers were inspired by that moment.

“That was when Karen made it clear that this was going to be a fight and we all were like, ‘Okay, let’s do this,’ and we took off our earrings and had someone hold our shoes and got ready for a big fight with a new, very powerful mayor,” Flanagan said. “We needed someone to swing, to make it obvious this might get ugly, but she was ready and we should be ready too.”

Lewis was known for throwing verbal bombs. She called Emanuel the “murder mayor” when the union was on the front lines in the fight against the historic closing of 50 schools in 2013.

“Look at the murder rate in this city. He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering jobs. He’s murdering housing. I don’t know what else to call him. He’s the murder mayor,” she said during the school closing fight.

And she once told a group of community and business leaders that then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, who for years held up the passage of a state budget until his agenda was approved, was a new “ISIS recruit … because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working-class people,” she said.

Potter said it took courage for Lewis to speak that way and it was a risk. He said even some members of the union would tell him that “Karen was too much.” He saw that as a euphemism for her being “too black.”

Potter said, though she didn’t like it, she would often have Potter or one of the other white officers go to member meetings in the white strongholds on the far Northwest and Southwest sides.

“In some ways, Karen was a consummate diplomat because she could span all these different environments, but in other ways she was the most smash-mouthed person I have ever known because she would not be afraid to say it like it was,” he said.

James Franczek, the chief labor attorney for the school district, said Lewis used rhetoric that people were not used to and that made some uncomfortable.

“My first impression was, ‘Wow, this woman is sort of off the rails,’” he said. “Karen has many positive traits but subtlety is not one of them.”

Karen Lewis 2012
Karen Lewis was known for her charisma and always speaking her mind. Charles Rex Arbogast, File / AP Photo

While Franczek said he disagreed with Lewis on most issues, he said he wound up liking her personally. In the years after the arduous 2012 negotiations, he would have dinner or coffee with her and they would talk about some of the things she loved — opera, classical music and what books she was reading.

“She disagrees with you on almost everything, but she does it with a sense of humor that makes those disagreements enjoyable,” Franczek said.

Franczek called Lewis a “force of nature” and someone who is so “unique he doesn’t think there will ever be another leader like her.”

Her intelligence and wit earned the respect of even her staunchest adversaries. When she retired, Mayor Emanuel sent her matzah ball soup, a traditional Jewish food. Emanuel called her a friend and said he respected her advocacy for the children of Chicago. 

In a Tweet on Monday, Emanuel said, “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.” 

“A fearless truth teller”

Current Chicago Teacher Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey, like Potter, was part of the group of young, upstart high school teachers who founded the CORE union caucus to take on the union leadership they ultimately replaced. They criticized former leaders for letting the school district increase privatization without a fight and for being unwilling to take on the broader social justice issues in public education.

Sharkey said he relished watching Lewis become “like a folk icon in the city.”

“Her ability to speak to the mass media and working-class people in the city really caught hold of the imagination of people broadly in Chicago,” he said. “It was amazing to see unfold.”

But he said it would be wrong to make Lewis out to be a cuddly figure who was friends with Emanuel. As with many black leaders, he said the tendency is to try to remove their sharp edge.

“This is the person who called Rahm Emanuel the murder mayor and was willing to take on the powerful and the establishment,” Sharkey said. “She has been a voice for black workers, she has been a voice for the underdog.”

Sharkey said Lewis was a “fearless truth teller” who was a “lightning rod of criticism.”

“She bore it with incredible grace and a tremendous amount of patience and really helped to give people confidence to create a movement,” he said.

Stacy Davis Gates, the current union vice president, said on the day the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 schools, Lewis declared she was going to shift the political landscape of the city. Lewis was gearing up to run for mayor against Emanuel when she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

Karen Lewis 2016
Karen Lewis speaks at a news conference on March 23, 2016 after the Chicago Teachers Union voted to approve a one day walkout on April 1, 2016. Nam Y. Huh / AP Photo

While Lewis didn’t get to challenge Emanuel, her vision played out, said Davis Gates. For one, Emanuel is no longer mayor, having decided not to run for a third term in 2019.

And in 2019, Sharkey and Davis Gates led the teachers out on an 11-day strike, demanding many of the supports and resources called for in that 2012 document, The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve.

The contract they negotiated includes commitments for hundreds more nurses and social workers, as well as class size caps, for the first time.

Davis Gates said it was Lewis that gave union leaders and teachers in Chicago the conviction to take on the fight.

“You see all of the threads and the fruits of her labor manifesting in a way where you don’t have just the one, you have the mightier, you have the more stable, you have a chorus of voices shaking their hand and demanding the justice she embodied as the leader of this union,” she said.

Sharkey also gave Lewis a powerful nod on the eve of the October 2019 strike. As he stood before throngs of members in their red shirts, Sharkey declared, “This is the house that Karen built.”

Karen Lewis crowd
Karen Lewis addresses a rally of thousands of public school teachers on Sept. 11, 2012 in downtown Chicago during the first teachers strike in 25 years. AP Photo

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.