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Who is Karen Lewis?

Karen Lewis is head of the powerful Chicago Teachers Union, currently striking against the Chicago Public School system.  The strike is actually a power play for Lewis, who wants both to control how teachers are evaluated in Chicago and to extend her power in union circles — and probably in political circles, as well.

Lewis and her group transformed the Chicago Teachers Union, as Seattle Educator Noam Gundle described in introducing her at an event there,

Karen Lewis is one of the many educators and community members in Chicago who questioned these [Race to the Top] policies and especially how they impacted challenged communities and how they affect equity in learning. She realized that educators were not organized enough and had few meaningful connections with community organizations and faith organizations. She was one of many who observed that response to Duncan’s policies by the Chicago Teachers Union was lackadaisical and sometimes completely absent. She and other educators created a caucus in the CTU called CORE – the Committee Of Rank-and-file Educators. They challenged the paradigm of top-down control and lack of democracy in their own union, an organizational model which unfortunately mirrored the organization of the Chicago Public Schools.

CORE began as a study group in 2007, but soon began to organize educators to connect with other community groups in ways that haven’t been seen in generations. They also helped to refocus the educators as leaders in working for social justice. When the CTU would later respond to the epidemic of school closings, CORE organized parent meetings, community forums, and more. In 2009, CORE helped to cancel 6 of 30 school closings. This had never happened before. In 2010, there were only 16 planned closings, and community organizing again succeeded in cancelling 6 more.

CORE also started meaningful work on issue of charter schools in Chicago. Duncan greatly enabled and expanded charters. Chicago has nearly all of their charter schools in communities of color, yet many are more segregated than their regular schools. They are not meeting the needs of the neighborhood populations and in many cases destroying the communities they were intended to serve. CORE activism and organizing has helped to expose these policies and work at changing them.

In 2010, CORE fielded a slate of candidates in the CTU elections and were swept into office with Mrs Lewis as the CTU president. Since her election the new leaders of CTU have worked to rebuild the image of educators in the media and expand connections in the community. They’re moving their union from business model to a model of organizing. Mrs Lewis continues to work tirelessly to make her own union a democratic, more responsive to the needs of members, and more transparent. She is currently at the center of a very challenging fight with the new CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Rahm Emanuel, which has national implications. She is a model for all of us how we can empower ourselves as teacher activists.

Why a teacher needs to be an activist is not clear. It’s more clear if we think of Lewis and her group as activists who happen to be teachers. Lewis is clearly about power, however, as we will see.

Michelle Malkin describes Karen Lewis as “thuggery personified“:

This is the woman leading the walkout of 26,000 public school teachers in Chicago. Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, is a loud-mouthed “social justice” radical whose Big Labor racket would rather abandon 350,000 children to the streets than accept merit-based pay, teacher evaluations, and a 16 percent pay raise. The school board had already caved considerably on the union’s demands, but as the Chicago Sun-Times put it: “From the get-go, the union seemed intent on striking.”

As CTU boss, Lewis addressed a crowd of her faithful members on Labor Day, 2012.  Arriving to chants of “C-T-U! C-T-U!”, Lewis’ speech confirms that she and the union were determined to strike.

“We are ‘umbled,” Lewis began, clipping her ‘h’ in the manner of Southern Pennsylvania. “We are ‘umbled to be here today, because everyone knows how serious this point in time is. Brothers and sisters, we did not start this fight. And brothers and sisters, enough is enough!”

The crowd began chanting “Enough is enough!”

The tone of adversarial hostility saturated the speech, as Lewis appeared to struggle to keep from slipping into profanity.

“Brothers and sisters, we did not start this fight. And I do want to correct something my brother Mike Shields said,” Lewis continued, referring to the union member who introduced her. “Karen Lewis,” said Karen Lewis, “did not get a strike vote. Let’s be clear: that was the hard work of every single member of the Chicago Teachers Union.”

So the union set a goal of striking and achieved that goal, through outlandish demands and bullying of any members who would rather teach than strike.

“This fight is not about Karen Lewis,” continued Karen Lewis, indicating that the fight was indeed about Karen Lewis. “This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago, but everywhere.”

In other words, Karen Lewis wants to control the soul of public education, not only in Chicago, but everywhere.

The grandiosity and pomposity of the union boss is clear, speaking of herself in the third person and with ample use of the royal “we”.

“By the very standards that those people over there, and all these people that work in these buildings, by their very standards, what did our students do last year? Graduation rates soared. The test scores soared. Where was the story about that from that office? It didn’t suit the agenda. It didn’t suit the agenda.  We did that without a longer day. And we did it after they [sold our ages?].”

Schooldigger.com rates the Chicago Public School system 695th out of 772 cities, putting it in the bottom 10% of school districts. Graduation rates “soaring” to get above 60% is a nice accomplishment, but 4 in 10 kids dropping out is not.

“The commitment to the children of the city of Chicago is in our hearts. It’s in our minds. It’s in the work we do. It is the work we do.  And a couple of blocks down the street they are in chaos.”

The nice talk about children is nice for nice talk about children, but the line about chaos reveals the true nature of the endeavor: throwing the enemy into chaos. It’s the goal of the Alinsky organizer, allowing the organizer access to more power.

“Their chaos has not stopped us from coming together. Their chaos has torn the city asunder. But the beauty of it is the people from outside of Chicago who have come here to destroy us were met with resistance they never thought would happen.”

That kind of shakey-fisty high drama is the stock in trade of organizers. It’s also typical of the organizer to blame the opponent for any problems that occur as a result of the organizer’s efforts.

“A little over a year ago they wrote us off. They said ‘We have a new law to stop you from doing anything other than what we tell you to do.’ And what happened?”

Lewis would answer her own question.

“But what I love about these people: they got on TV and bragged about it. They weren’t happy just stabbing us in our backs. They had to crow and tell everybody what they had done.” [emphasis added]

The CTU thought of the people running the CPS as allies, because they are allies. Both sides are radical leftists, having the growth of the state as a shared goal. When the union gets more members and more money, it has more people available to donate to leftist campaigns and, most importantly, to knock on doors to get out the vote. It all continues in a self-reinforcing cycle.

But the CTU organizers got their feelings hurt

“And building by building, school by school, we all came together to stop the juggernaut that doesn’t care about our children, doesn’t know what we do, has written off 25% of our children. Our children. when the mayor of the city of Chicago can stand up and say 25% of our children will never be anything and never amount to anything and I’m not wasting money on them, and then get in public and deny it.”

Our children. By asserting ownership of the community’s shared children, the organizer gains power and virtue. It’s all for the children.

Who knows whether Rahm Emanuel actually said that 25% of students will never amount to anything? Lewis is here revealing that poisonous information to gain power for herself.

“The liar. And a bully. The only way to beat a bully is to stand up to a bully.”

I really can’t disagree, there.

“Now brothers and sisters I want you to know: yesterday, the day before, the day after tomorrow, we will continue to negotiate. We will work as hard as we can to get a fair contract. And we know there’s a finite amount of resources. But we also know we didn’t create that problem. Our children are not a campaign promise. Our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet. When they come after our children, they come after us, and we will protect them. “

Protect them from what? The only thing in danger here is the job of the union organizer if she can’t deliver job security to her members.

“Brothers and sisters, we did not start this fight, but enough is enough. Thank you.”

The strike comes at a lousy time for President Obama’s reelection hopes. At a time when Emanuel and the money men should be working closely with Lewis and the ground troops, they are instead adversaries in a struggle for factional control of their shaky alliance.

 

 


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