Earlier this month as Karen Lewis clung to life, the former Chicago Teachers Union president feared Mayor Lori Lightfoot would derail the negotiations to reopen Chicago Public Schools during the pandemic.
Lewis’ husband, John Lewis, noted during a virtual memorial Sunday that the contentious reopening talks — and ultimately the fate of public school teachers and students — remained the legendary union chief’s key concern as her condition deteriorated. Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014 as she was mulling a run against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, her longtime nemesis who was seeking a second term.
“It was rough, but her last words to me was, ‘They’re not going to go back to school until it’s right,’” said John Lewis, who met his late wife when they were both teachers at Lane Tech College Prep.
“She said, ‘Lightfoot’s not going to play right. She’s not playing right. She’s being dirty, underhanded,’” he continued. “So this was how she felt.”
A short time later, Lewis died on Feb. 8.
That same day, the CTU’s governing body voted to send Chicago Public Schools’ latest reopening terms to the union’s full membership for a vote. Those terms were ultimately approved the following day in a deal that averted a second teachers’ strike in just two years.
In 2012, Lewis emerged as a folk hero when she publicly battled Emanuel and led the CTU in its first strike in 25 years.
During Sunday’s memorial, hosted by the CTU’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators, Lewis’ former comrades and friends raised a glass while recalling her warm demeanor, supportive nature and at times cutting sense of humor. Many highlighted her fighting spirit and the lasting impacts she had on public education and politics.
Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1st), a former teacher who helped organize the 2012 strike, said the country’s political shift “has a lot to do with the radicalization” of the CTU and the CORE caucus, which seized control of the union under Lewis’ leadership and has taken strong stances against privatization, school closings and other issues.
“The work that she paved the way for has opened up a lane for so many people — union activists, hunger strikers, parents, folks who are running for office,” said Johnson, noting that activist-minded progressives are also “taking over” seats in Chicago City Council and the Illinois General Assembly. “They’re also taking over community-based organizations. And, oh by the way, they’re also taking over unions.”
Still, Jackson Potter, a teacher and staff coordinator for the union, expressed concerns that Lewis’ potential impact was limited by her health, as well as attacks from “the business class” that he claimed “may have contributed to her death.”
Potter said he’s still angry that Lewis’ health prevented her from taking on Emanuel in the 2015 mayoral race. Following her diagnosis, Lewis endorsed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who was bested by Emanuel and now serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“She’s left this legacy that is really incredible and will live on with all of us. And we have an obligation to continue this work,” said Potter, who credited Lewis for making racial justice a key concern of the union.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the CTU has now married “traditional rank-and-file, kind of left-oriented, unionism to Black liberation politics.”
“I was consciously loyal to Karen, and I remained that way. I think it’s worth considering about what the building of those political forces together has meant for this union and for the city and just acknowledging it,” Sharkey said.