CHICAGO – Karen Lewis, a formidable leader of a teachers’ union in Chicago who fought Rahm Emanuel when he was mayor, and who in 2012 led the city’s public school teachers in their first strike in a quarter century, died on Monday. She was 67 years old.
Her death was announced by the Chicago Teachers Union, which did not specify where she died. Ms Lewis was on treatment for glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer that forced her to retire as head of the union in June 2018 after undergoing brain surgery.
Cancer was first diagnosed in 2014 and had forced her to give up the idea, supported by many, of running for mayor of Chicago the following year. She had hoped to topple Mr. Emanuel, a Democrat and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama. Mr. Emanuel was re-elected.
Ms Lewis’s death came as the union neared a final deal with Chicago’s public schools that would avert another strike, this time over how teachers, students and school staff could return safely to classrooms during the coronavirus pandemic.
The union called Ms Lewis a “brawler with a sharp mind and an Ivy League education.”
“She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her performing arias, and dazzled you with her smile,” the union said, “but she could look at the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with force. rarely seen in unions. . “
After Ms Lewis resigned as union leader, Mr Emanuel praised his old adversary’s tenacity and advocacy for the town’s children, saying he and she had “grown up to be admired as friends”.
In previous years, Ms Lewis, a former chemistry professor, has branded the mayor as a bully and a liar in local newspaper pages as she negotiated a new contract for the 26,000 teachers she represented in the third plus large school system of the country. .
The success of the 2012 strike, which lasted seven days, followed by a smaller strike in 2016, helped unions remain a powerful force in Chicago, one of the last major union strongholds in the country.
“Our city has lost a great voice,” said Stephanie Gadlin, a former spokesperson for Ms. Lewis, on Monday.
Karen Jennings was born July 20, 1953, on the south side of Chicago, into a family of teachers. She attended public schools in the city.
She considered getting into medicine, but chose teaching instead after she “fell madly, passionately in love with it,” she told Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2011.
She had transferred to Dartmouth after studying at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She received a BA in Sociology and Music in 1974, an MA in Education from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago in 1993, and an MA in Fine Arts from Columbia College Chicago in 2002.
She later spoke of feeling isolated in Dartmouth, which admitted its first wives in 1972, as a black woman.
“Dartmouth was a really bad experience for me, but it made me stronger,” she told the magazine, adding, “It was clear that women were not wanted. It taught me that top-down decisions usually take a while for people to buy into. “
She married Arnold Glenn after graduation and they settled in Oklahoma. The marriage ended in divorce. Back in Chicago, she quickly joined faculty at one of the city’s top high schools, Lane Tech, on the North Side. In 2001, she married John Lewis, a fellow teacher there.
Her husband survives her. They had lived in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. Full information on his survivors was not immediately available.
Ms Lewis traced her union career back to when she was a member of a local school board and witnessed a takeover by a principal who used her position to enrich his friends.
“It got me involved in the union, which I saw as the only protection against injustice,” she told Dartmouth magazine.
Ms Lewis taught from 1988 to 2010, when she was elected union president, a demanding job that required her to navigate the complex politics of Chicago and its sprawling and often troubled school system while representing tens of thousands of people. teachers and staff.
Shortly thereafter, she faced a bitter contractual dispute between the union and the city. Teachers said they were promised a four percent pay rise that was never delivered; Mr Emanuel, who pledged to make major changes to the school system after being first elected in 2011, called for longer school days and more rigorous teacher evaluations.
Teachers took the picket lines, leaving some 350,000 students out of the classroom but winning raises, though, as a concession to the city, the union agreed to let student test scores factor in assessments. teachers.
Some debates were lost: Ms Lewis was unable to prevent the mayor from closing nearly 50 schools deemed underperforming or underutilized. She argued that the closures would destabilize neighborhoods and have an unfair impact on black and Latin families.
She also unsuccessfully resisted what she saw as excessive standardized testing and repeatedly argued that the achievement gap, especially in large segregated cities like Chicago, was due to poverty.
Ms Lewis was elected to a second three-year term as union president in 2013.
She was widely discussed in 2014 as a mayoral candidate, but before she could declare a race, she found out she had a brain tumor. She threw her support behind another opponent of Mr. Emanuel, Jesus G. Garcia, then county commissioner.
Mr Garcia won enough votes in the mayor’s primary to force a run-off with Mr Emanuel, but lost to him by a wide margin in the 2015 general election (Mr Emanuel chose not to run for a third term in 2019.)
Even after retiring from teaching, Lewis often spoke of her lingering affection for the class.
“I measured my success as a teacher by the cuddles at the end of the year,” she once said, “by conversations with kids who say, ‘I’ve never been there. thought of it that way.