The Chicago Teachers Union’s Karen Lewis Dared Us to Believe We Could Win

At a time of austerity and teacher demonization, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis — whose death at age sixty-seven was announced today — dared to believe that educators and the working class as a whole could fight back and win.

Karen Lewis speaks to supporters during a rally at Union Park in Chicago in 2012. An estimated 25,000 striking Chicago teachers and their supporters gathered in the park in a show of solidarity during negotiations on a labor contract. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

To paraphrase Fred Hampton, Karen Lewis dared us to struggle — and dared us to win.

The death of Lewis, the former president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who helped spark the ongoing teachers’ strike wave throughout the country, was announced today at the age of sixty-seven. Lewis was a black chemistry teacher from the South Side of Chicago. She was elected CTU president in 2010 as part of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) leadership slate, after CORE stood with black-led community organizations like the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization to fight against school closings, mass layoffs, and gentrification. Lewis’s leadership and vision turned the Chicago Teachers Union into one of the nation’s most democratic and militant unions, remade the political fabric of our city and nation, and touched hundreds of thousands of lives in the process.

The 2012 strike put tens of thousands of people in the streets of Chicago. At a time of austerity and widespread demonization of teachers, both in Chicago and around the country, the CTU walked off the job insisting that we deserved, and could actually win, schools and a city that served Chicago’s working class. The strike put black, Latinx, and working-class people, and a workforce that is overwhelmingly women, in the streets by the tens of thousands against a neoliberal mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to say that the schools and city belonged to us. Astonishingly, they won.

That strike changed the political landscape of Chicago and the whole country, touching off a wave of teachers’ strikes that continue to this day and that have even put ideas like a general strike back on the table for the first time in generations.

Up to that point, I had been trained as an organizer to pick winnable fights. I had been to dozens of Board of Education meetings where community members and students waited in line for hours in order to compete for a lottery spot to have two minutes to speak to the school board — a board that, in a travesty of basic democracy, was and still is handpicked by the mayor rather than elected by Chicagoans, and thus has no form of accountability to the average parents, students, and residents of the city they serve. I had watched parents and students, crying, dragged out of those meetings by security guards, their voices going unheard by the board.

But seeing the streets filled with tens of thousands of teachers and supporters in red changed my whole conception of what I thought we could win and transformed what I let myself imagine. We didn’t have to fight for crumbs from the people who ran the city. We, the working class, could run the city ourselves.

One year later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel — who was, at the time, the most prolific national fundraiser for the Democratic Party — closed forty-nine public schools, the majority of them in black neighborhoods. Karen challenged CTU members and their supporters to run for office against anyone, Democrat or Republican, who supported the corporate agenda of school closings, union-busting, and mayoral control of the schools. I answered the call in my own way, leaving my job in community organizing to go on to work for the electoral challengers backed by Lewis and the CTU.

This planted the seed for what would grow to become United Working Families (UWF), an independent, membership-based, pre-party political organization. Since 2016, we’ve elected twenty members from the rank and file of community and labor struggle — including former teachers, union stewards, health care workers, and community activists — to political office at the city, county, and state level.

Karen didn’t just dare us to imagine a political party of our own — she answered the call herself, taking steps to launch a campaign for mayor against Rahm Emanuel in 2015 before she was tragically sidelined with a brain tumor. She dared us to believe that a black teacher from the South Side of Chicago could be mayor of a major American metropolis, by building the power of the working class behind her. In so doing, she helped lay the foundation for so many of the candidates UWF has backed since then.

We didn’t win all of those fights. But Karen taught us that the point is not to only take on the immediately winnable. The point is to dare, and to struggle, and in so doing to make a different future possible.