Karen Lewis taught me the power of teachers to fight for better schools

I became not just a CPS teacher, but a CTU activist in a fight for investment in public schools and public school teachers.

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Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union addresses the crowd during a rally on Sept. 15, 2012.

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union addresses the crowd during a rally on Sept. 15, 2012.

Charles Rex Arbogast | AP

Nine years ago, I was a Chicago Public Schools teacher on maternity leave from TEAM Englewood High School. My school’s union delegate called to see if I could come in to vote on a possible strike.

I didn’t know much about the issues on either side, only that former Mayor Rahm Emanuel wanted to lengthen the school day without paying teachers for the extra time. That alone warranted a “yes” vote from me.

That fall, with the majority of our members voting to strike, nearly 25,000 of us dressed in red and took to Chicago’s streets chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go!” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” as we went on a 7-day strike.

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I had been a member of the Chicago Teachers’ Union for as long as I had been a CPS teacher, but that was the first time I truly realized the power of our union.

At my new school, Lindblom High in Englewood, I was unsure if we were doing right by our students in keeping them out of school because of issues that I thought people in charge could fix if they worked cooperatively.

But then our school’s union leader led us downtown for a full union rally.That’s when I saw our union en masse and heard Karen Lewis speak.

Teachers from all across the city were united in a way I had never seen before. We were a sea of red, blocking traffic, getting honks of support from drivers and the middle finger from white collar workers, mostly men, who worked in high-rises. We ended up on Clark Street, just outside of CPS headquarters.

Lewis came up to the podium. A media helicopter flew overhead, and she spoke over its loud propellers. “Wave, and say hello! Let them see you smile!” We laughed in unison and waved.

We were not scared, and we wouldn’t show it if we were.

A united front for better schools

Lewis washed away any doubts I had about the strike. She spoke about working conditions and learning conditions.This was not just about Emanuel asking for a longer school day and not paying teachers for it. It was about decades of disinvestment in a school system that serves Black and Latinx children.Lewis spoke of systemic racism, the reason for ratty textbooks, dirty schools, a lack of air conditioners, improper heating equipment, and a dwindling number of nurses, social workers, and school librarians.

From that moment on, I was hooked. I became not just a CPS teacher, but a CTU activist. I was clear on exactly what we were all fighting for: a better school district for our students and for us, their teachers. Lewis showed me that the two go hand-in-hand: Better working conditions are better learning conditions. Period.

In many Chicago schools, some of the working and learning conditions did improve. CPS delivered air conditioners, schools could order textbooks again, and we won our pay for the extended school year.

But more than this, Lewis united teachers from over 600 schools and got them to believe in a better school district and to fight for it at all of our schools.

Even now, as CTU and CPS battle back and forth about re-opening during the pandemic, their fight is one to watch.In the most current CPS offer, CTU has negotiated for vaccine sites for teachers and for actual health metrics to be used when deciding whether to return to school or stay remote.

They are not arguing about pay, but about educator health, which directly impacts students. If teachers are not healthy, they cannot teach.

In the years that Lewis led the CTU, and since she resigned for health reasons, teachers around the nation have gone on strike for better schools and looked to CTU as an example.

Better pay is almost always an issue, but strikes have come to stand for more: A fight for investment in public schools and in public school teachers.

We all have Karen Lewis to thank.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years and is Nationally Board Certified.

Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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