[Marxism] Meet the Woman Who Leads the Chicago Teachers’ Strike
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Thu Sep 13 19:57:56 MDT 2012
Meet the Woman Who Leads the Chicago Teachers’ Strike
by Liane Casten
Karen Jennings Lewis is a powerhouse of energy, ideas, and idealism. The
head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, this 350-pound African-American
woman is not easily intimidated.
She was my former pupil, clearly brilliant in high school. She was a
feisty, independent girl, with her own ideas spilling out with every
challenge. Her dad was a fellow teacher with me at the same high
school—now called Kenwood Academy. She’s grown up with education, is
dedicated to good and equal education for all the Chicago public school
children, and now in her late fifties, she and the Chicago Teachers’
Union have become the epicenter of a major battle.
With two master’s degrees, she’s had an over-20 year career in Chicago’s
schools. Her last job was teaching chemistry in one of Chicago’s
“select” eight high schools. But the way Chicago schools were going
caused her deep alarm. She and others began CORE—the Caucus of Rank and
File Educators, and Lewis became its co-chair.
“The Caucus of Rank and File Educators was formed in response to the
failure of the old union,” she says. “We thought the old union had not
mounted adequate resistance” to the so-called reforms of former Mayor
Daley and former school superintendent Arne Duncan (now Obama’s
education secretary). These included privatizing schools, promoting
charter schools, and codifying standardized tests for all children—thus
eliminating critical thinking, analysis, and creativity, decimating
unions, and undermining schools in poor Latino and African-American
communities with the aim of closing them down.
So Lewis ran for the head of the teachers’ union and in June 2010, she won.
“If you thought Chicago Public Schools were bad back then,” she says,
“let me tell you, today they are dreadful. Worse than ever.”
Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is following up on the Daley and Duncan
strategy. Emanuel’s first order of business was to put a longer day on
the agenda—an hour and a half longer—without the necessary teachers to
provide educational work, without a valid education plan or compensation
for teachers’ salaries.
Other critical issues are being fought by the union--issues that do not
get much of a hearing in Chicago’s press. These include unworkable class
sizes; inadequate staffing for a fully functional school; an absence of
social workers to serve deeply needy kids; the destruction of art,
music, foreign language, and physical education programs; the purging of
experienced teachers; no books on some library shelves; inadequate
playgrounds; no air conditioners in many classrooms, making learning
“It’s about equal access for all,” she says. “The political leaders do
not understand the nature of public education. How long have the schools
She also understands that corporate America is behind the push to
privatize the schools and impose standardized testing.
“We’re fighting big business,” she says. “They want to control the
population. They need a permanent underclass to do the available jobs
for less pay. They want a compliant, unquestioning work force. They want
a volunteer army. They want to terrorize people: ‘Be quiet and don’t
complain.’ No critical thinkers here. It’s all about obedience.”
The pressure Lewis feels is enormous. She is struggling with many forces
and massive criticism. The strike story has gone national and international.
The union and the Chicago Board of Education have been in negotiations
for months. They are continuing today.
No one wants his/her child to be out of school, but people are
supporting this strike because they understand the battle is crucial,
and it’s about much more than money. It’s about trends that undermine
public education and harm children. So many children are treated as
pebbles on the beach. They can be washed away in the pursuit of this
“I feel as if we don’t make a change, we will have no union,” she says.
“The leaders want us gone.”
© 2012 The Progressive
Liane Casten, a public school teacher in Chicago, wrote this piece for
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