Obituary for Karen Lewis

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Socialist Alternative and my Council office are deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our Union sister Karen Lewis, who spearheaded the fight to rebuild the Chicago Teachers’ Union into the fighting organization that took on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the billionaire-funded neoliberal education reformers in its powerful 2012 strike. As a rank-and-file member of the American Federation of Teachers 1789 in Seattle, my solidarity to sister Karen Lewis’s family and friends, and to Chicago public school teachers.

Lewis, the daughter of public school teachers and as she herself would proudly proclaim, the product of a Chicago public school education, was elected in 2010 as President of the CTU in a rank and file revolt that overturned a bureaucratic leadership clique who had run the union as a rubber stamp for the corrupt pro-corporate regime of Democratic Mayor Daley. 

In 2009, as the nation groaned under Obama’s policies of bailing out the rich while defunding and privatizing public services and education, an opposition caucus had developed in the union to fight against school closures on the South Side of Chicago. This was the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, or CORE. Elected by this democratically run group to be its candidate for the Presidency of AFT Local 1, Karen Lewis was elected to the local’s top position in 2010. Her inspiring victory speech was heard around the country and was seen as heralding a turning point in the fight against austerity. It was under this new leadership that the union spent the next two years preparing for the strike which was to take on the ed-reform movement in a head-on confrontation with Mayor 1%, Rahm Emmanuel.

The strike, which was supported by the overwhelming majority of Chicago workers, inspired educators around the country, laying the basis for the 2018 Red for Ed strike wave. Lewis was at her finest when taking on the lies of the billionaire-funded school reform movement and its claims that unionized teachers didn’t care about our children’s education. When Rahm’s handpicked school board retaliated by putting 120 schools on a closure list, overwhelmingly in Black and Latinx neighborhoods, the CTU went to work organizing parents and communities across the city to fight back in a way that had not been done in many decades. Although 49 schools were ultimately closed in 2013, it needs to be remembered that without the massive fightback led by the CTU, this assault would have been even more devastating. The following year, Lewis prepared to run for Mayor and in this context, she raised the demand for a financial transaction tax on Chicago’s La Salle Street exchanges, a serious threat to the rich and super rich.

Karen filed the papers for her candidacy without a party affiliation, signalling that she was prepared to run as an independent candidate of the labor movement. Tragically, she was taken ill before the campaign could get under way, and her chosen replacement, Democrat Chuy Garcia, could not and did not appeal to workers the way Karen could. Crucially, he fumbled the key issue of taxing big business and the rich: despite the fact that his campaign depended entirely on the support of working-class people and especially the unionized employees of Chicago’s resource-starved public schools, Chuy could never clearly answer the question “How will you pay for your programs”, and his campaign went down to defeat.  We will never know what a Karen Lewis campaign might have achieved but it could have been an important stepping stone towards a new party for working people. 

Subsequent contract struggles reflected the extreme difficulties confronting union leadership in a system where the laws and entire power structure are so rigged against working people. Future generations will have to take these struggles forward. But she will always be remembered for her role in raising the labor movements’ sights after a period of defeat. As a Black working-class woman, she inspired all who fight the system as she stood toe to toe (and curse for curse) with the vicious, bullying Mayor 1% – and was so clearly his moral and intellectual superior. 

Karen Lewis will be remembered as a teacher, union leader and passionate advocate for public education, racial justice and a more decent, humane and equitable society. She will be remembered for her outspoken audacity in taking on the interests of the ruling class in Chicago and for standing up to the neoliberal assault on our children’s education. Rest in power. Karen Lewis presente!