Karen Lewis, the former president of the Chicago Teachers Union, has died after suffering from brain cancer. She was 67 years old.
A former chemistry teacher, Lewis joined the teachers union in 1988, serving as its president from June 2010 to 2018. After being diagnosed with an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer in 2014, Lewis dropped plans to run for mayor of Chicago.
Lewis retired as president of the union in June 2018 after she suffered a stroke in October 2017, turning over the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union to her deputies, Jesse Sharkey and Stacy Davis Gates.
In Lewis’ memory, the union posted a picture of her surrounded by a crowd dressed in red, the union’s signature color.
Stephanie Gadlin, a former spokesperson for the union, confirmed Lewis’ death in a statement Monday morning.
“I cannot tell you how inspired I was by her leadership as well as her vulnerability as she navigated the treacherous terrain of Chicago politics,” Gadlin said. “I cannot count how many times we shared tears over the plight of students and people who have been marginalized for years, or the bellows of laughter due to her biting sense of humor.”
In a lengthy statement, the union said its members were in deep mourning. Hours after the news of Lewis’ death was announced, the union’s House of Delegates was scheduled to gather to consider the framework of a deal that would allow in-person learning to resume at Chicago Public Schools for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to close in March 2020 — and avert the second strike in 15 months.
“Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love,” the union said in a statement. “She 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.”
The union credited Lewis with ushering a new era for teachers’ unions across the nation, fueling strikes from West Virginia to Arizona that resulted in pay raises and improved working conditions while turning the tide on efforts to expand charter schools amid a push for education reform backed by pro-business politicians and funded by corporations.
“But Karen did not just lead our movement,” according to the union’s statement. “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.”
Lewis, a former chemistry teacher at King College Prep and Lane Tech High School, battled former Mayor Rahm Emanuel throughout her tenure as the head of the Chicago Teachers Union. Under her leadership, the union went on strike for seven days — the first labor stoppage in 25 years by the teachers in the city — that marked a major shift in the fight over public education reform.
Lewis also expanded the issues that the 28,000-member teachers union bargained over, demanding that the contract address racism, poverty and systemic inequality.
Emanuel, who famously used an expletive in one of his first meetings with Lewis, later acknowledged she was a formidable opponent and politician.
In a tweet, Emanuel called Lewis “a tough and tireless champion for public education and for Chicago’s children, one who was never afraid to fight for what she believed in.”
“While we often found ourselves on different sides of the debate, I grew to have enormous respect for Karen and our regular conversations were a benefit to me and to the City of Chicago,” Emanuel wrote. “May her memory be a blessing.”
As he prepared to leave office, Emanuel said his biggest regret was canceling a 4% pay raise for teachers in 2011, which put him on a collision course with Lewis and the union.
Lewis rarely bit her tongue — either in public or privately — when taking on those she saw as foes of public education.
Lewis called Emanuel the “murder mayor” for closing of 50 schools in 2013, the largest in the city’s history.
“Look at the murder rate in this city. He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering jobs. He’s murdering housing. I don’t know what else to call him. He’s the murder mayor,” Lewis said.
Lewis also blasted former Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, who suggested that the Chicago Public Schools declare bankruptcy.
“ISIS recruit … because the things he’s doing look like acts of terror on poor and working-class people,” Lewis said.
After Lewis became ill, she pushed Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, then a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, to run against Emanuel. Even though the former alderman had a relatively low profile — even after serving as an ally on the Chicago City Council to former Mayor Harold Washington — Garcia forced Emanuel into a runoff and ushered in a new era of progressive politics.
Garcia, now a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, said Monday he was “humbled” by Lewis’ support.
“I had a mentor and friend in Karen, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to work with her and witness her passion for justice,” Garcia said. “Her legacy will live on as a guiding light for those advancing equity and justice in the classroom, public service, and in the fight for workers’ rights.”
In 2016, with the union and school district again at the precipice of another strike that would be averted after a one-day walkout, Lewis said her illness had given her a new “perspective.”
“I was pulled back from death’s door,” Lewis said. “I don’t let negativity in.”
Lewis said her illness meant the end of her ambition to be mayor — but sounded a warning that predicted the labor unrest Mayor Lori Lightfoot, elected in 2019, would grapple with while in office.
Being mayor of Chicago “is an impossible job to do well,” Lewis said.
At an unrelated event Monday afternoon, Lightfoot said Lewis would be remembered as a “fierce advocate for teachers” with a deep love for Chicago.
“The legacy of Karen Lewis will live on and resonate in our city for a long time to come, and rightfully so,” Lightfoot said.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson called Lewis “a legend.”
Lewis “taught me a lot,” Jackson tweeted. “We spent more time talking about being Black women in leadership than contracts. I’ll always appreciate her wit, sage advice, courage [and] commitment to kids. She embodied the notion we can disagree [without] being disagreeable.”