Mar 1, 2021
Karen Lewis, former president of the Chicago Teachers Union, died on February 8th.
Before Lewis was elected CTU president in 2010, Chicago schools had faced attack after attack in the 1990s and 2000s—which the union at the time mostly accepted: Privatization, opening charter schools while starving regular public schools, always pushing more and more testing.
In 2011, President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel got elected Chicago mayor, saying he would confront the teachers. He claimed teachers got raises, while students got “the shaft”—and then clawed back a raise.
In the midst of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, Lewis led teachers and school staff in a strike, the first in over 25 years, to defend school staff and teachers alike. In standing against Emanuel, she taught teachers to fight back regardless of which political party was carrying out the attacks.
Karen began a campaign to run for mayor in the Spring 2015 election. Many in the city found this an exciting prospect—but it would not come to pass. In Fall of 2014, Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer, and so withdrew from the race.
Lewis did not propose for the working class to build its own party, separate from the capitalists’ Democratic Party. But she did say clearly that working people ought to stand up for themselves. And unlike so many union leaders, she was not afraid to lead a fight that might embarrass that Democratic Party.
Her spirit will be missed.