Karen Lewis Met Her Moment

When Karen Lewis and her Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators took power in the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, the landscape for labor in her city and country was bleak. She rose to the moment — and helped transform what was politically possible for a teachers’ union and the labor movement as a whole to accomplish.

(Courtesy of Chicago magazine)

I first met Karen Lewis in the back of a conference room at a suburban Detroit hotel, during the biannual Labor Notes conference in April of 2010. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was waging a valiant fight to take control of the Chicago Teachers Union, a fight that I assumed would end with an election loss but maybe one of those “moral victories” gained, the kind to which leftists often cling to console themselves after yet another defeat.

The spring of 2010 was not a high-water mark for a fighting labor movement, or for a project of left-wing political revival in Chicago. A rank-and-file uprising in a major Teamsters local in the city, Local 743, where longtime union reformers had successfully won leadership and begun the long and hard process of turning their union around, was in the midst of an attack from the old guard over a minor procedural issue — an attack that ultimately ended up being successful, kicking leaders Richard Berg and Gina Alvarez out of the union. Sparks of hope in recent years — the 2008 factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors, the hundreds of thousands who flooded the streets to fight for immigrant workers’ rights on May Day 2006 and on each subsequent May 1, successful union organizing victories for tens of thousands of home health care and childcare workers in the middle of the decade, a united front effort of labor and community organizing forces in 2007 that successfully defeated nine incumbent city council members in the wake of our losing a major fight against Walmart — were waiting for a catalytic force to bring them together into something greater than the sum of their parts, and something that could actually win.

CORE formed in 2008, a scrappy group of teacher activists dedicated to the transformation of their union. CORE was not then, and is not now, a caucus dedicated purely to the idea of union reform. It was and is an organization that saw reform and democratic control of its union as necessary building blocks for a much larger fight — one against entrenched capital and a power structure built to extract maximum profit from the city’s largely black and brown working-class communities. Its vying for the leadership of one of the city’s most important unions seemed like an uphill battle against long odds.

What convinced me in the end to spend a few evenings volunteering for CORE wasn’t anything that came from Karen or CORE at all. As a delegate to the Chicago Federation of Labor, I received an invitation to a fundraiser for the incumbent slate. The venue? The Chicago Opera Theater.

It’s not an everyday occasion for a union leader to invite support from outside of their union in their internal leadership elections, but it’s not unheard of. But a union leadership fundraiser at an opera theater? I was taken aback, but couldn’t shake a very clear feeling — that the incumbent slate knew they were in trouble but had no idea how to organize themselves to victory.

A month later, I was in a very different venue: the dingy basement of the United Electrical Workers (UE) hall on Chicago’s Near West Side, phone banking for Karen and the rest of the CORE slate. One phone call has stayed in my mind since. After some back-and-forth with a ten-year veteran elementary teacher, tired and ready to pack it in for the night, she asked:

“Wait, you’re calling about Karen, right?”

“Yes, can we count on your vote?” I responded.

“I don’t know her, but I like her. She definitely can’t do any worse than what we’ve got.”

It’s easy to lapse into mythmaking about figures like Karen, and Karen rightfully deserves her own mythology. On the other hand, it’s easy to over-personalize and overanalyze; to run right past an attempt to make a larger-than-life figure more human.

The truth about Karen is this: she was an educator and leader who met her moment perfectly. Teachers in Chicago in 2010, like the one I spoke to on the phone, were reeling from years of disinvestment, with successive leaderships unable or unwilling to stop and reverse the wave of privatization. Teachers like that elementary school educator who picked up my call that night from the UE basement weren’t looking for a savior. They were looking for the leadership of skilled, trusted educators who were willing to put up a fight. And it was that call that convinced me to push past my labor-bureaucrat cynicism: maybe they did have a chance.

Turns out they did. Now, over a decade later, Chicago is a new city — one with an invigorated labor left that is an anchor for a broad working-class movement fighting austerity and police brutality and gentrification, through protests and strikes and winning elections. Chicago is now rife with possibilities to win a city for the many, not the few. All those new possibilities can’t be chalked up exclusively to Karen Lewis’s leadership. But Chicago would look a lot less hopeful today if she hadn’t met her moment.