Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU), recently announced that she will seek a third term in May 2016. Lewis has been undergoing treatment for a brain tumor diagnosed last October, but she stated in her announcement that she is now healthy, and that she is “not done” fighting for Chicago’s students and teachers.
An outspoken critic of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Lewis considered opposing Emanuel in February’s city election, but, as a result of her diagnosis last year, decided not to run. Instead, she threw her support behind Cook Country Commissioner Chuy Garcia, whose candidacy forced a run-off election in April, despite what was supposed to have been an easy win for Emanuel.
A South Side native, Lewis fought particularly hard against Emanuel’s decision to close fifty of Chicago’s lower-performing and lower-income public schools in 2013, many of which are on the South Side. Lewis herself attended Kenwood Academy High School in Hyde Park-Kenwood, and taught at King College Prep High School, a selective enrollment school in Kenwood.
Lewis spoke at Mahaila Jackson Elementary School in Auburn Gresham after Emanuel announced the closings, deeming him the “murder mayor.” Her speech also linked the decision to race, stating that “88 percent of students affected by such CPS school actions are African-American. And that is by design.” In May 2014, a year after the Board of Education approved the school closings, Lewis accused the mayor of “failed policy” in a statement, explaining that when school communities asked for resources and support, Emanuel made the “easy, draconian choice” to close them instead. She has also continually voiced support for Dyett High School in Washington Park, where fifteen activists went on a hunger strike in an attempt to convince the school district to consider reopening the school.
The school closings were far from the first time Lewis has clashed with Emanuel. In 2012 she led CTU on an eight-day teachers’ strike. Their demands included improved benefits and working conditions, a teacher evaluation system not based on student test scores, and protection for teachers who had been laid off due to school closings. They were successful in fighting for both new evaluations and teacher protections, and Lewis deemed the strike “a real victory.”
More recently Lewis has been working with the school board to negotiate a new teachers’ contract to replace the most recent one, which expired in June. The board and the CTU had almost settled on a one-year contract, in which CPS teachers would not receive pay raises, but CPS withdrew that offer in August.
One particular point of tension was pension pick-up. Currently teachers pay only two percent into their pension, while the district covers seven percent of their nine percent contribution. The board aims to have teachers pay the full cost in hopes of rectifying CPS’ $1.1 billon deficit, and has already begun to eliminate pension contribution for central office and non-union employees. Lewis argues that the budget problems are structural, and that the removal of pension pick-up can’t fix them, as she told Chicago Tonight in August. She has said that removal of the seven percent pickup is, in effect, a pay-cut, and even called the elimination of pension pick-up “strike worthy” at an August news conference.
As Lewis approaches a potential third term in office, pushing for policies that will benefit the many CPS schools on the South Side remains one of her top priorities. Following her announcement that she plans to run again, she stated that she and Emanuel are on good terms. Still, Emanuel will surely continue to face significant pressure from Lewis on a number of issues ranging from an elected school board (advocated for by Lewis and the CTU, opposed by Emanuel) to pensions, school closures and more.