EXCLUSIVE CTU President Karen Lewis: Finding Peace in the Fight

By: Mary L. Datcher and Robert T. Starks

CTU President, Karen Lewis
CTU President, Karen Lewis

The challenges of every day responsibilities encompass a great deal more when you are a parent or legal guardian of a child.

One of the top priorities one faces is finding a good and safe center of learning for their toddler, which leads to securing a traditional path of school enrollment either through a private, public or charter institution.

In the past three decades, Chicagoans have witnessed deterioration in the Chicago Public School (CPS) system that has impacted our community socially and economically.

No longer having a Superintendent in place to oversee the business of CPS, a board composed of educators, business and administrators influence the decisions made that impact some 396,683 students.

But, more importantly, it’s the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) that has challenged some of these decisions and has risen up from being just another union – providing assistance to its 27,000 members –to becoming a solid voice for social justice.

CTU President Karen Lewis has demonstrated that her background and experience in the CPS system are major contributors to her success in that office.

A Chicago native, she’s an alumnus of Kosminski Elementary School and Kenwood Academy and earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Dartmouth College.

Her love for filmmaking also prompted her to attend Columbia College, and inspired her to write her thesis on the “Image of Black Women in Film” after she attended Northeastern Illinois University’s Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, where she earned an M.A.

Lewis taught chemistry for 22 years in the Chicago Public Schools and in 2010 she ran for President of the Chicago Teachers Union, winning with 60 percent of the vote.

Winning the seat by such a large margin reflected the change needed due to an administration that allowed Mayor Richard M. Daley to control CPS, which resulted in a stripping of the union’s bargaining powers.karen_lewispicjpg

Some would say this also lead to the privatization and promotion of charter schools under former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas.

In an interview with the Chicago Defender, Lewis said, “One of the that things bothered me was that I didn’t feel the union was actually looking at that from a macro level. They were not involving the community in the process of doing union work, which to me is how do you not have parents and community on your side.

“How do you not do that? We would go to these charter school openings, hearings, closings and the unions were never there. They were never there.”

Mayor Daley’s close political ties to the Illinois state legislature’s Democratic leadership granted dictatorial like power over all CPS matters, including the budget and policy.

In addition, the hardest blow to many was the move by Daley to eliminate the School Board Nominating Committee that had been sanctioned by Mayor Harold Washington. This gave Daley sole power to appoint school board members and set policies concerning class size, hours of instruction, layoffs, the authorization of charter schools and the privatization of services.

Jacqueline Vaughn was the first Black CTU President; she succumbed to cancer in 1994. Thomas Reece, Jacqueline’s successor and an ally of Daley, was defeated for re-election in 2001 by Deborah Lynch-Walsh.

But it was Karen Lewis and her fellow union members who were committed to social justice. They created the Caucus of Rank and File Education (CORE) after the short-lived tenure of Ms. Lynch-Walsh.

“We decided we would have to run in order to make changes,” she said. “We were trying to move the union leadership in the direction of being really serious about social justice, about being serious about community de-orientation and re-tooling the whole concept of what the union looks like. That’s not what we saw. We had to do it ourselves.”

In 2010, CORE’s efforts to bring CTU members and policies closer to the community supported the newly elected CTU President. The Illinois General Assembly passed a law that required approval from 75 percent of union members including those voting on a strike authorization.

Lewis explained, “They tried to make it impossible for us to strike. I got threatened down there (in Springfield). They said, ‘If you strike, we’re going to take away your right to strike.’ Really?” says Lewis.

Battling Rahm

In what played out like a campy scene from the classic television drama series, Dynasty, the battle ensued between the newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Lewis coming on the heels of CPS changes.

Walking into nightmarish budget woes left over from the previous administration, Emanuel’s “bully” approach was not faring well among Lewis and her colleagues. Changes included increasing the hours of classroom instruction, cutbacks on teacher compensation, layoffs, and the hardest blow of all – the closing of 50 public schools mostly in predominately Black neighborhoods.

The infamous profanity-laced heated meeting between Emanuel and Lewis resulted in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate CTU from challenging the mayor’s changes.

Lewis reflects back on those meetings. “I think that in all honesty, he learned his lesson,” Lewis said. “You don’t cuss out a Black woman. You don’t cuss out a Black woman from the South Side. That may have worked when you cussed out that woman from California.”

KarenLewispresspic1At that point, it was no longer CTU versus CPS, it was Emanuel versus Lewis, and the gloves came off. With the support of several community grassroots organizations beyond the union, it secured the support of various communities across the city.

Chicago neighborhoods, defined by cultural differences, languages and often segregated by intersections, were suddenly brought together in support of the teacher’s demands. The strike lasted seven days and garnered widespread public support forcing Emanuel to concede many of the demands of the CTU.

During this time, the mayor appointed Barbara Byrd-Bennett as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools to help curve some of the tension between the board and CTU. Up until Bennett’s indictment, there was a mutual respect between her and Lewis.

“I had a very good working relationship with Barbara,” Lewis said. “She and I could talk about things that we both had common reference points. I think Forrest is basically a tech grab – that’s fine; he has his space in the world. I think the problem is with the nature of the job – we don’t have a superintendent anymore.

“You need to have somebody with an educational background. I haven’t had a chance to develop a relationship with (Chief Education Officer) Janice (Jackson) yet because we’ve been in the middle of negotiations and I’ve been sick. I have to still pace my days.”

Lewis said it was easier to connect with Bennett because of similar cultural backgrounds and they were closer in age. “I had a very good working relationship with Barbara. It was easier for us because we were two old Black women. That just cut down on a lot of barriers.”

Although, she briefly contemplated a mayoral run against Rahm Emanuel, due to illness, she cancelled her bid and supported rival Chuy Garcia.

Five years later, CTU and CPS are back at the negotiating table. In the meantime, the 62-year-old Lewis has not given up without a fight despite dealing with treatment for her physical ailments.

The State And Gov. Rauner

The budget stalemate between the Republican governor and a predominately Democratic general assembly has put drastic budget constraints on CPS and higher learning institutions throughout the state.

The governor’s recent recommendation for CPS to consider filing for bankruptcy has put more pressure on the city’s credit rating.

About that move, which has been compared to the emergency management of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis, Lewis says, “He’s too crazy for me to try to understand. I just don’t understand him.

“I don’t understand the viciousness that he shows; it’s personal with him. I think it’s a mistake because when you make something personal, then you let it out of your purview.”

In October 2015, the City of Chicago passed the biggest tax increase with union pensions increasingly leaning on the bulk of Chicago taxpayers. The mayor has defended the tax hike as a necessity to ensure that police, firefighters and first responders continue to provide safety for residents.

Lewis feels this process is not only important for its members but the students that they serve. “I think the problem is that the notion of unions for some people is very negative; they say, ‘All you care about is yourselves.’

“If that was the case, I would’ve stayed in the classroom and let somebody else deal with this, but I felt like our union leaders at the time were not clear about the way public education had been zapped by the ruling class and co-opted.

“Our children need relevance; we can’t just throw something out at them that is packaged and scripted. What I was seeing was this notion that our children need to be compliant, uniformed, and ‘it down and shut up.’

Forrest Claypool
CPS CEO, Forrest Claypool

Since last Thursday’s meeting, CTU brought a new offer to their “Big Bargaining Team,” which is comprised of approximately 40 members on board to help with the negotiation process.

Unfortunately, on Monday, the Board of Ed’s deal was rejected by the group and once again, a strike before the school year-end is highly unlikely, but not ruled out.

“Simply signing a contract with CPS will not bring them a windfall of resources from the state,” Lewis said. “We have to exhaust every option available, which includes terminating those swap deals, returning the TIFs to the schools, and installing a financial transaction tax that could bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the city.”

In order to be sufficiently equipped, with information, CTU formed a research unit that would allow the union to speak from a position of fact. “When we took over, we cut officer’s salaries so that we could afford to have organizers and researchers,” she said, “because we feel this also gives us information we need to provide to other people. We can provide information to various elected officials. We have way more credibility because we’re serious about we’re doing!”

Although the exact terms of the new deal on the table for CTU have not been publicly released, sources mentioned CPS would not continue a pension pickup for long-standing teachers. In addition, there are no guarantees that CPS will reduce charter school expansion.

The intense pressure to put an end to the negotiations is important, but not at the expense of making sure Chicago students receive a fair and quality education. Lewis realizes CTU’s work does not end when a deal is finalized. There is still a great deal to do and she sees the decrease in cultural diversity within the CPS as a major problem.

“There’s a variety of reasons for that right now. One reason is that principals have complete and total control over hiring and they’re not giving it up. So, what you find is principals hire people who look like them and people who they’re comfortable with,” Lewis said.

“There are schools in this city that have a significant Black population, but there is not one Black teacher or a teacher over the age of 40. School based budget has incentivized that. The other thing is that veteran Black teachers have been targeted.”

ctu-members-rally-wednesday-may-24-2012According 2014-2015 CPS Stats and Facts, there are approximately 39.3 percent African-American students compared to 9.4 percent White students, with Hispanic student enrollment leading at 45.6 percent.

Although both Black and Hispanic students make up the largest attendance at CPS schools, White teachers make up 50 percent of the teaching faculty, African-Americans 22.6 percent, with Hispanic teachers rising to 19.7 percent.

Lewis addressed the changes passed by the SB7 Bill, which evaluates teachers by the student’s test scores, PERA (Performance Evaluation Reform Act).

“People say, ‘You’re just trying to protect bad teachers.’ No, they’ve decided what’s good or bad based on what we don’t agree on. Guess who gets the absolute lowest ratings? Black male teachers. They’re not being hired. The ones that they do hire, they get rid of as soon as they can. But they need Black male teachers, students need those role models,” Lewis said.

There are various battles that Lewis is faced with, and though her number one priority is her health, she plans to run for re-election for her third term as CTU president in May.

“Our next step is to secure a contract – trying to move this school year forward. Also, to look for long-term funding solutions because that’s what it’s going to take,” Lewis said. “We can’t come to a crisis every single year; we can’t have that. We need some stability in the system and the only way to do that is to have over a long haul a progressive revenue solution.”

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