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Karen Lewis (labor leader)

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Karen Lewis
Karen Lewis.png
Lewis speaking at Daley Plaza during the protest of Chicago school closings, 2013
Karen Jennings[1]

(1953-07-20) July 20, 1953 (age 65)
EducationB.A. Sociology and Music
M.A. Inner City Studies
Alma materKenwood Academy
Mount Holyoke College
Dartmouth College
Northeastern Illinois University
OccupationChicago Public Schools Chemistry teacher, labor leader
Years active1987–present
OrganizationChicago Teachers Union
Known forPresident of the Chicago Teachers Union since 2010
Arnold Glenn (m. 1973–1984)

John Lewis (m. 2001)

Karen Lewis (née Jennings;[2][3] July 20, 1953)[citation needed] is an American Chicago Public Schools teacher and labor leader. She is the current president of the Chicago Teachers Union, local 1 of the American Federation of Teachers. She is a former King College Prep High School and Lane Technical High School chemistry teacher, her occupation for 22 years before becoming president of the teachers union. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College.

Early life[edit]

Lewis is the daughter of a family of teachers. She left Kenwood High School (now Kenwood Academy) after her junior year to attend Mount Holyoke College. She transferred to Dartmouth College in 1972 and is the only African American woman in the class of 1974, with a degree in sociology and music.[4] A widow, her second husband is a former Chicago schools physical education teacher.

Chicago Teachers Union[edit]

Lewis is the president of the Chicago Teachers Union. She has been a member of the union since 1988. In 2010, Lewis, running with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), gained control over the CTU by winning 60% of the vote in a run-off election.[5] CORE ran an aggressive grassroots organizing campaign, and took a strong stance against school privatization.[6] CORE accused the incumbent United Progressive Caucus (UPC) of capitulating to corporate interests, silencing dissent within the union, and collaborating with the city to prevent union outreach at schools.[7] CORE quickly took action to distinguish itself from UPC, the previous caucus controlling the CTU, reaffirm its grassroots support, and launch a campaign to defend public education. The new leadership cut pay for union officers and used the savings to expand outreach.[8] CORE represented a major bloc of dissent at the 2012 AFT convention, and held signs in protest of Race to the Top during a speech from Vice President Joe Biden.[9]

2012 Strike[edit]

In early September 2012 she led the Chicago Teachers Union on a 10-day strike. Emerging victorious, the union softened the proposed teacher evaluation system, prevented the instituting of merit pay, and ensured protections for veteran teachers in phased out schools.[10] Prior to the strike she went through several months of negotiations with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Emanuel appointee Chicago Public Schools board president Penny Pritzker. Lewis claimed that during a disagreement over lengthening the school day, Emanuel said, "Fuck you, Lewis."[11]


2002 – National Board Certified Teacher in the area of Science for adolescents and young adulthood.[12]

2015 – The Deborah W. Meier Hero in Education Award, presented by Fairtest.

2015 – The Mary E. Smith Foundation named a scholarship after Lewis: "The Karen Lewis CTU-CPS Excellence in Science Award."[13]

Potential 2015 mayoral candidacy[edit]

In July 2014, Lewis set up an exploratory committee to consider running for mayor of Chicago in 2015.[14] In a poll from the same month, Lewis bested Emanuel 45-36 in a hypothetical electoral contest.[15] On October 13, 2014, her exploratory committee announced that she would not run, citing health issues (see section below).[16]

Personal life[edit]

She is a convert to Judaism.[17]


On October 9, 2014, Lewis was hospitalized for a "serious illness".[18] On October 13, a source confirmed that Lewis had been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor.[19]


  1. ^ Dartmouth Alumni Magazine - Karen (Jennings) Lewis ’74
  2. ^ "Karen Lewis, Street Fighter". Chicago magazine. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
  3. ^ "Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis on why she converted to Judaism 20 years ago and the role it plays in her life and work" (PDF). Better Newspaper Contest. Chicago Jewish News. July 5, 2013. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  4. ^ Greg Hinz (August 12, 2013), "So you think you know Karen Lewis?" Crain's Chicago, Business.
  5. ^ Canon, Ramsin (June 12, 2010). "Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) Takes Over Chicago Teachers Union". Gapers Block. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  6. ^ Canon, Ramsin (May 3, 2010). "The Education Revolt: The Chicago Model's Fallout". Gapers Block. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  7. ^ Abowd, Paul (June 7, 2010). "Chicago's Rank and File Educators Well-Positioned Against "Play it Safe" Incumbents". Labor Notes. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  8. ^ Sustar, Lee (August 31, 2012). "Chicago Teachers Draw a Line". The Indypendent. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  9. ^ Scott, Norm (July 30, 2012). "@AFT - Chicago Teachers Protest RTTT During/After Biden Speech". Ed Notes Online. Retrieved September 11, 2012.
  10. ^ Hirst, Ellen Jean, and Delgado, Jennifer (September 19, 2012), "It's back to school again for Chicago students", Chicago Sun-Times.
  11. ^ Rossi, Rosalind (September 9, 2011), "Teachers union president Mayor Emanuel ‘exploded’ at her", Chicago Sun-Times.
  12. ^ May, Audrey (2016). "Karen Lewis Biography" (PDF). Chicago Teachers Union. Retrieved February 9, 2016.
  13. ^ Smith-Woodson, Tiffany (2015). "The Karen Lewis CTU-CPS Excellence in Science Award". Academic Works, Inc. Retrieved August 3, 2015.
  14. ^ Koerecki, Natasha (July 15, 2014). "Karen Lewis inches closer to run — crafting exploratory committee". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 5, 2015.
  15. ^ Korecki, Natasha (July 14, 2014). "Exclusive poll: Karen Lewis could give Rahm run for his money". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on July 17, 2014. Retrieved July 18, 2014.
  16. ^ Perez, Juan, Jr. (October 13, 2014). "Karen Lewis will not run for Chicago Mayor". Chicago Tribune.
  17. ^ "Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis on why she converted to Judaism 20 years ago and the role it plays in her life and work" (PDF). Better Newspaper Contest. Chicago Jewish News. July 5, 2013. Retrieved April 19, 2016.
  18. ^ "CTU may offer details today on Karen Lewis' health". Chicago Tribune. October 9, 2014. Retrieved October 9, 2014.
  19. ^ Ahern, Mary Ann (October 14, 2014). "Karen Lewis Has Brain Tumor: Source". WMAQ-TV NBC Chicago. Retrieved August 5, 2015.