Karen Lewis, fighter for public education, charismatic ex-leader of Chicago Teachers Union, dies

Lewis had considered running against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2014 but decided against it after being diagnosed with a brain tumor.

SHARE Karen Lewis, fighter for public education, charismatic ex-leader of Chicago Teachers Union, dies
CTU President Karen Lewis with teachers and supporters, on a one-day strike in April 2012.

CTU President Karen Lewis with teachers and supporters, on a 1 day strike called by the Chicago Teachers Union at King College Prep. Friday, April 1, 2016.

Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

A visionary. A legend. A brawler. A friend. An opera lover.

Just some of the ways people remembered Karen Lewis, the charismatic former head of the Chicago Teachers Union whose death was announced Monday.

“Our union is in deep mourning today at the passing of our sister, our leader and our friend, President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a statement. “We are sending heartfelt condolences to her husband, John Lewis, and her surviving family and friends. She will be dearly missed.

“Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love. She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn, the first Black, female president of our local. Both were fierce advocates for educators and children, but where Jackie was stately elegance, Karen was a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education.”

Later in the day, current CTU President Jesse Sharkey tweeted: “Rest in Power Karen Lewis — you united us and helped us see our own power, and you did it with your humor, your humanity and your courage. You always gave of yourself so freely. We love you and may your memory be a blessing.”

In a statement on Twitter, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said: “Amy and I are saddened to learn of Karen Lewis’ passing. Our deepest condolences go out to her family, loved ones, friends and CTU family during this extremely difficult time.”

Gov. J.B. Pritzker called Lewis “a fighter who possessed a sense of humor, smarts and charisma that few in the public sphere could match. She believed to her core in bettering her members’ lives and improving the lives of Chicago’s children. Her legacy will long endure — may her memory be a blessing.”

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, also in a tweet, said: “Jane and I are deeply saddened by the passing of Karen Lewis. She lived her life on the front line of the struggle for justice in education, and to honor her memory we must recommit ourselves to building the fairer future students and families deserve.

In 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, fueled by their anger against then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who persuaded the Illinois General Assembly to raise the strike threshold, stripped them of a previously negotiated 4% pay raise and offered schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers contract and immediately implement his longer school day.

The strike damaged Chicago’s reputation and turned Lewis into a folk hero with the guts to fight City Hall.

“The 2012 teachers’ strike changed the course of Chicago and our entire country,” SEIU Illinois State Council President Tom Balanoff said in a statement Monday. “Karen’s leadership inspired teachers across the country to fight for quality public education that their communities deserve.

“Through her work and vision, Karen transformed CTU into the powerful organization it is today and reminded the world how unions are a potent force for the common good. Her legacy lives on through the millions of working people she inspired to fight for collective justice.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle echoed that theme in praising Lewis: “She was a leader, a fighter and a visionary, fiercely committed to the values of equity + justice. She was a leading voice on public education in not just the city of Chicago, but in our country. Rest in power.”

In 2014, Lewis considered running against Emanuel. When cancer derailed that plan, she endorsed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who didn’t win but is now a U.S. congressman.

“I was blessed by Karen’s trust and confidence to fight for working people and the communities we represented,” Garcia said in statement Monday. “In 2015 she encouraged me to run for mayor of Chicago when her own bid was cut short by medical complications. I am humbled she supported me.”

Lewis’ passions extended far beyond the education and politics.

“She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile,” the CTU said, “yet could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor.”

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