Lessons in Social Justice Unionism: An Interview with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis

By Jody Sokolower | Published in Volume 27 No.2 – Winter 2012-2013 of Rethinking Schools

Four years ago, Karen Lewis was a chemistry teacher, one of eight Chicago teachers who formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) to fight school closings (see “A Cauldron of Opposition in Duncan’s Hometown: Rank-and-File Teachers Score Huge Victory”). This September, as president of a transformed, democratic Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), she led the 30,000-member union in a successful strike in the city that has been a launch pad for the neoliberal education strategy. The collective and collaborative nature of the teachers’ union, and the breadth of parental, student, and community support for the strike, make understanding the CTU’s perspective and strategy critical for all of us interested in social justice unionism.

Jody Sokolower for RS: Set the scene for us: What were the issues that led to the Chicago teachers’ strike this fall?

Karen Lewis: The strike was a result of 15 to 25 years of anger about being blamed for conditions that are beyond our control. That’s part of it. The other part was a clear rebuke to the mayor and his friends about the top-down “reform” agenda and how it absolutely does not address the needs in the schools.

As soon as Rahm Emanuel [President Obama’s former chief of staff] came to town to run for mayor, he had as his education advisor the head of a charter school network, Juan Rangel. We knew from the very beginning this was going to be an ugly, bitter fight. Once Emanuel won the primary, before the general election, he was already heavily dabbling in Springfield and insisting that we not have the right to strike. Working hand in hand with Jonah Edelman from what I call “Stand on Children” [Stand for Children], he tried to raise the bar so high that we would have our right to strike theoretically, but wouldn’t have it in reality. They got legislation passed that meant we need 75 percent of our entire membership—not our voting membership—to authorize a strike.

Our membership was incensed; this was a law carved out just for Chicago. My response was: “Brothers and sisters, if we don’t have 75 percent of our members in favor of a strike, we shouldn’t strike. A strike is not something you do lightly.” Then we spent more than a year talking to members about the contract, getting them involved in the contract fight, getting their wishes and desires as part of the proposal that we presented to the board.

Once he was elected, Emanuel was so enamored of a longer school day that last year—in the middle of our contract—he went directly to schools to ask them to take a waiver and do the longer school day with no additional compensation, trying to bribe principals with $150,000 per school and teachers with free iPads. We had to go to the Education Labor Relations Board to enjoin them from doing that. Emanuel got 13 waivers before we clamped that down. That’s what happens when you have people running the school system who come from the business world. They think they can do whatever they want and do not understand how to deal with labor.

While parents liked the longer day, they also thought we should be compensated for it. They didn’t like the idea of forcing people to work longer without being paid for it. Parents are very clear about if you work, you get paid.

And the entire time, we were having conversations with our parents about what would make school better; we always had a different vision of what school should look like. We said, “You have the right to a longer day, but let’s make it a better day, because if you’re only elongating the day we have, everyone’s just going to get tired. There’s no evidence that a longer day in itself is better.” Parents wanted art, music, PE, world languages. They wanted classes that were not just reading and math all day long.

The parents understood that the mayor was bullying us. Parents also understood that we were being blamed and attacked for stuff that had nothing to do with how we managed our schools. They were clear about that. We have overwhelming support from parents whose children actually go to Chicago public schools. Sometimes when they do polls and ask parents, those parents don’t have kids in the schools.

Emanuel also took away the 4 percent raise that was already in our contract. What he really wanted was for us to open up the contract and go on strike last year so he could have imposed the longer school day. But we were adamant: We have a contract, we expect you to follow that contract.

Read more: http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/27_02/27_02_sokolower.shtml

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