Meet the Woman Who Leads the Chicago Teachers’ Strike

Karen Jennings Lewis is a powerhouse of energy, ideas, and idealism. The head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, this African-American woman is not easily intimidated.

She was my former pupil, clearly brilliant in high school. She was a feisty, independent girl, with her own ideas spilling out with every challenge. Her dad was a fellow teacher with me at the same high school—now called Kenwood Academy. She’s grown up with education, is dedicated to good and equal education for all the Chicago public school children, and now in her late fifties, she and the Chicago Teachers’ Union have become the epicenter of a major battle.

With two master’s degrees, she’s had an over-20 year career in Chicago’s schools. Her last job was teaching chemistry in one of Chicago’s “select” eight high schools. But the way Chicago schools were going caused her deep alarm. She and others began CORE—the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, and Lewis became its co-chair.

“The Caucus of Rank and File Educators was formed in response to the failure of the old union,” she says. “We thought the old union had not mounted adequate resistance” to the so-called reforms of former Mayor Daley and former school superintendent Arne Duncan (now Obama’s education secretary). These included privatizing schools, promoting charter schools, and codifying standardized tests for all children—thus eliminating critical thinking, analysis, and creativity, decimating unions, and undermining schools in poor Latino and African-American communities with the aim of closing them down.

So Lewis ran for the head of the teachers’ union and in June 2010, she won.

“If you thought Chicago Public Schools were bad back then,” she says, “let me tell you, today they are dreadful. Worse than ever.”

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is following up on the Daley and Duncan strategy. Emanuel’s first order of business was to put a longer day on the agenda—an hour and a half longer—without the necessary teachers to provide educational work, without a valid education plan or compensation for teachers’ salaries.

Other critical issues are being fought by the union--issues that do not get much of a hearing in Chicago’s press. These include unworkable class sizes; inadequate staffing for a fully functional school; an absence of social workers to serve deeply needy kids; the destruction of art, music, foreign language, and physical education programs; the purging of experienced teachers; no books on some library shelves; inadequate playgrounds; no air conditioners in many classrooms, making learning impossible.

“It’s about equal access for all,” she says. “The political leaders do not understand the nature of public education. How long have the schools been under-resourced?”

She also understands that corporate America is behind the push to privatize the schools and impose standardized testing.

“We’re fighting big business,” she says. “They want to control the population. They need a permanent underclass to do the available jobs for less pay. They want a compliant, unquestioning work force. They want a volunteer army. They want to terrorize people: ‘Be quiet and don’t complain.’ No critical thinkers here. It’s all about obedience.”

The pressure Lewis feels is enormous. She is struggling with many forces and massive criticism. The strike story has gone national and international.

The union and the Chicago Board of Education have been in negotiations for months. They are continuing today.

No one wants his/her child to be out of school, but people are supporting this strike because they understand the battle is crucial, and it’s about much more than money. It’s about trends that undermine public education and harm children. So many children are treated as pebbles on the beach. They can be washed away in the pursuit of this destructive agenda.

“I feel as if we don’t make a change, we will have no union,” she says. “The leaders want us gone.”

Liane Casten is the founder of Chicago Media Watch.