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Mihalopoulos: Karen Lewis objects to boss label, not behavior

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, announces a one-day walk out for April 1 at a press conference last week. File Photo. Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

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Karen Lewis was not happy when I once described her on Twitter as the boss of the Chicago Teachers Union.

“STOP USING THE WORD BOSS to describe me,” came the swift response from @KarenLewisCTU. “I’m a teacher. If you need a short word use PREZ.”

I’m too easily drawn into social-media spats, so I shot back: “If I agreed to let you edit my tweets, then you’d be my boss.”

I think we patched things up quickly, but I was reminded again of our brief Twitter war this week. An apparent flare-up of dissent in the union ranks prompted the CTU leader to deal with the matter like a boss.

OPINION

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In another bitter contract dispute with the nearly broke Chicago Public Schools, Lewis’ union has called on members to mobilize for a “Day of Action” on Friday.The union has instructed teachers not to show up for work on that day. They instead must report outside schools at 6:30 a.m. to picket. The CTU also will hold demonstrations in the afternoon at City Hall and the Thompson Center.

Expect another big, red show of force, much like the scenes downtown during the CTU strike of 2012 and the following year, when Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Board of Education closed 50 schools.

But some teachers say they are not too thrilled with the idea of the one-day strike on Friday, citing the loss of pay and classroom time.

The union has made clear it won’t tolerate any failure to follow its plan. Any teachers who report to work on Friday face forking over to CTU whatever they earn that day in the form of fines, for breaking ranks. Those who don’t pay the fines could be expelled from the union.

Lewis and union leaders need to do whatever they can to maintain solidarity. But the approach CTU is taking seems like an odd tactic for a labor group that prides itself on conducting business in a highly democratic manner.

Under Lewis, the CTU has made an unprecedented push into politics, recruiting and heavily backing Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in his challenge of Emanuel last year. The gist of the union’s criticism of the mayor has been that he’s acted like a dictator.

Lewis said she hoped to bring about “a restoration of participatory democracy” by removing the notoriously bossy Emanuel.

There doesn’t appear to be much room in the CTU’s own democracy for teachers who want to teach on Friday. According to the union’s plan, delegates are to “distribute stickers and make sure every member is wearing a sticker” at schools on Wednesday.

“Use sticker day to gauge whether you have 100 percent participation,” the CTU leadership wrote.

The union delegates have been told to then “take attendance” at the picket sites on Friday morning and to “monitor all school entrances.”

Until now, the public has appeared to be largely sympathetic to the teachers in their fights with Emanuel, who is generally as unpopular as ever.

But Etoria Scott, a mother of four students from the South Side, says she’s on his side against the CTU.

“What are you going to accomplish with a one-day strike?” says Scott, a 35-year-old convenience-store manager. “If the state don’t have money to pay you, the state don’t have money to pay you.”

Besides worrying about whether public opinion could shift, Lewis’ most pressing concern may be how to keep together what could be an increasingly fractured membership.

Two months ago, a deal she struck with CPS negotiators fell apart quickly, after being rejected by a union panel. The episode suggested there’s a large group within CTU that wants to take the most aggressive approach possible.

It’s all enough to make you wonder who’s the boss at the union.

Tweets by @dmihalopoulos