Labor leader and fierce critic of corporate education reform Karen Lewis, who headed the Chicago Teachers Union from 2010 to 2018, has died, the union said Monday. She was 67.
“Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement.”
—Chicago Teachers UnionThe Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) said in its statement that Lewis “bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day.”
Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014, which brought to a halt her bid to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
It was under her leadership that Chicago teachers in 2012 staged their first strike in 25 years. That action, Rethinking Schools wrote in an editorial at the time:
showed the importance of teachers using their collective power to demand that all children get the education they deserve. It demonstrated the necessity of an alliance among teachers and parents and community organizations. It exposed the bipartisan corporate “reform” agenda promoted by key sections of the Democratic and Republican parties.
It also signaled that a new teachers’ union movement is in the making.
In short, it was a wake-up call to anyone concerned with the future of public schools.
“She understood that the union had to organize families and communities, not just their own members,” education historian Diane Ravitch wrote Monday. “She fearlessly confronted the powerful.”
Lewis was born on July 26, 1953. A proud daughter of Chicago Public School teachers, she went to Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park on the South Side. She left her junior year to go to Mount Holyoke College and then transferred to Dartmouth College. She said she was the only African American woman in Dartmouth’s graduating class of 1974.
Before becoming president of the teachers union, she was a chemistry teacher in Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.
Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: ‘Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?’ Before her, there was no sea of red—a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian, and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete—filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni—to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.
But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion—the people’s champion.
News of Lewsis’ death sparked an outpouring of condolences as well as celebrations of her work:
No one deserves to rest in peace than Karen Lewis. pic.twitter.com/kMUUh1IZkB
— Keeanga-Yamahtta T. (@KeeangaYamahtta) February 8, 2021
So saddened to hear of the passing of the great Karen Lewis. She fought so hard for Chicago students, families and the teachers who love and support them. She set off a wave of trade union militancy. She also knew a disaster capitalist mayor when she say one. RIP. https://t.co/hFxVAcNXeA
— Naomi Klein (@NaomiAKlein) February 8, 2021
Karen Lewis was a brilliant, unrelenting, perfect labor leader. I was so lucky to know her, to strategize and plan with her, to march and rally with her. She showed up early for the Wisconsin Uprising because she was ALWAYS on the right side of history.#wiunion @CTULocal1 https://t.co/LrSsETcaRT
— John Nichols (@NicholsUprising) February 8, 2021
Rest in power Karen Lewis, an unapologetic labor leader who left her mark on the South Side and reshaped mayoral politics and teacher organizing.
She would say, “We are the city of big shoulders and so we intend to put up a fight.” pic.twitter.com/6JHv7HX9XZ
— South Side Weekly (@SouthSideWeekly) February 8, 2021
Rest in Power Karen Lewis, longtime CTU president and hero of the labor movement. https://t.co/8Z4kg591Qz
— DSA (@DemSocialists) February 8, 2021
Rest in Power to Karen Lewis. What a titanic loss. She, more than any individual, is the reason why today teachers, workers and families look to the CTU for hope in a time of relentless darkness. https://t.co/LFWph6vCEd
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) February 8, 2021
Wow. Karen Lewis. One of the most important figures in sparking the new teachers union movement, and giving another life to the US labor movement. We all owe her an immense debt. RIP. https://t.co/cj1GYGgOy2
— Jonah Furman (@JonahFurman) February 8, 2021
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. https://t.co/wmWb35VQCt
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 8, 2021
The American Federation of Teachers, of which CTU is an affiliate, shared a video highlighting Lewis’ fight for educators and students:
Today we mourn the loss and celebrate the life and work of @CTULocal1‘s Karen Lewis. May her memory be a blessing, and her lifelong dedication to education and working people an inspiration to us all. Rest in power. pic.twitter.com/UsH97AzPAh
— AFT (@AFTunion) February 8, 2021
“May her memory be a blessing, and her lifelong dedication to education and working people an inspiration to us all,” the union wrote. “Rest in power.”