Sep 1, 2014
The president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, announced she has filed the official paperwork required if she decides to run for mayor of Chicago. But, according to Lewis, she will let the population decide – if she gets enough signatures, she says she will run.
It’s obvious she could have the signatures if she wants them – the polls indicate that she would defeat Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor, if the election were held today.
We can’t rule out the possibility that this is a charade aimed at striking a deal with Emanuel. Politicians certainly have done that kind of thing before. And union leaders today are politicians, whatever else they may be.
But if Lewis does decide to run, that could change a certain number of things in Chicago’s political atmosphere. The fact that the leader of an important union has decided to contest for political office against one of the most powerful Democrats in the country symbolically, if nothing else, challenges the long-standing habit of the unions to tie the working class to the Democrats.
Lewis two years ago led her union in a strike against concession demands that Emanuel made of the teachers. That strike became a political fact in Chicago. Not only had Emanuel been leading the attack on teachers and students in the Chicago schools, he was also one of Obama’s closest allies. Coming right in the midst of Obama’s re-election campaign, the strike was a political embarrassment for Obama.
For many Chicago teachers and parents, Karen Lewis continues to be a symbol of that resistance.
That’s not to say that Lewis in the past didn’t endorse Democrats. It’s not to say that she won’t again.
But if she takes this step, it could be a political assertion for the working class – a statement that the working class could put up its own leaders as candidates.
In and of itself, that would be notable. We, after all, live in a country where the working class long ago stopped appearing on the political scene in its own name. And the unions forgot, if they ever knew, how to play an independent political role.
One of the important issues of this campaign will certainly have to be the question of what happens to the public schools. Emanuel, with Arne Duncan and Barack Obama behind him, has continued to lead the bourgeoisie’s attack on the schools – that is, on the children of the working class.
It won’t be nearly so easy for Karen Lewis to win the election in February as it is for her to be ahead in the polls today. Emanuel is one of the slickest politicians in the country – not for nothing was he Obama’s chief of staff. And he is loaded with money and connections.
On the other hand, Lewis could tap the ranks of her union and other unions, the ranks of all those parents disaffected by what is being done to their children’s education. Not only for money. In order to win, she will have to look to a kind of popular campaign. If she does, that will change things in the political atmosphere.
If she is elected next February as the mayor of Chicago by waging a campaign in defense of public schools and their teachers, that in itself will not change things for the children, nor for the working class. If, however, participation in the campaign gives the teachers and the broad working class confidence in their own capacity to fight in the political arena, that could open a new chapter in Chicago’s long working class history.