The ranks of teachers who went on strike across the US in recent years wore red — #RedforEd was their rallying cry, as they advocated for better pay, more respect and the value of public education in the face of privatisation.
Both the red and the militancy were inspired by Chicago union leader Karen Lewis, whose death at the age of 67 was announced on Monday. Lewis became a hero of the left in 2012 when she prevailed against the city’s then-mayor Rahm Emanuel in a nine-day strike that started a new approach to labour negotiations that was used by teachers’ unions across the country.
The Chicago Teachers Union described her as “a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education . . . who bowed to no one”. She dubbed Emanuel the “murder mayor” for “murdering” the city’s schools, jobs and housing. When the famously profane Democrat swore at her during negotiations, she volleyed straight back.
“Rudeness,” she said in 2016, “didn’t work because I’m from the South Side. I know bad words too. I can take my earrings off, put Vaseline on my face and go. I can do that!”
Lewis loved opera and show tunes, spoke three languages, played tennis and piano, and, before becoming a high school chemistry teacher, tried medical school and the odd standup comedy gig.
She was a staunch defender of public education and criticised the spread of charter schools — privately operated, taxpayer-funded schools — and their affluent proponents. She gave voice to teachers who were angry at being blamed for the failures of a decentralised education system in which poor and wealthy school districts are funded unequally.
“She came out of the trenches,” says Alderman Susan Sadlowski Garza, a friend and union ally of Lewis and a former school counsellor. “She said everything that we were feeling, because she lived it.”
Born Karen Jennings to two schoolteachers, she grew up in the Chicago neighbourhood of Hyde Park, and attended state elementary and high schools. She graduated from Dartmouth College in 1974, the only black woman in her class.
She became a chemistry teacher and taught in city schools for 22 years, and met her second husband, John Lewis, at one of them. In the 1990s, she converted to Judaism, because she was attracted to a religion that encouraged questioning.
As she became more involved with the CTU, she joined a teachers’ book club in which they read Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. The history of how governments have implemented free-market policies following disasters was a galvanising text.
The club evolved into Core, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. In 2010, the group ran an underdog campaign for the leadership of the teachers union with Lewis as the top of the ticket and seized control of the 26,000-member body.
According to Garza, when Emanuel rescinded a promised raise, Lewis stood on a flatbed truck outside Garza’s South Side home and told a crowd of 700 to save for a strike.
A year later, with more than 90 per cent support from members, Lewis led the union in its first strike for 25 years. The action enjoyed significant public support, largely because Lewis and her allies shifted the focus from union issues to social problems, such as poverty and racial inequality. The CTU was one of the first US unions to popularise the approach, known as bargaining for the common good.
When teachers in West Virginia, California and Colorado went on strike in 2018 and 2019, and there were walkouts and rallies in another seven states, all wore CTU red.
“‘Red for Ed’ strikes were all about defending education,” says Bob Bruno, a labour professor at University of Illinois-Chicago. “That’s a sea change, and that’s also bargaining for the common good, and again leads back to CTU and Karen Lewis.”
Lewis endured losses, too. The CTU failed to block Emanuel’s plan to close 50 schools, a move she described as “racist” and “classist”. When she contemplated running for mayor against him in 2014, her supporters donned buttons saying, “Run Karen Run”. But she was forced to abandon the plan after a brain cancer diagnosis. She suffered a stroke three years later, followed by a re-emergence of the cancer.
“It wasn’t my time,” she said in a 2016 interview. “This wasn’t for me. I tell people all the time, there’s an old Jewish joke. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”