Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, 1953-2021

Claire Bushey:

According to Garza, when Emanuel rescinded a promised raise, Lewis stood on a flatbed truck outside Garza’s South Side home and told a crowd of 700 to save for a strike.

A year later, with more than 90 per cent support from members, Lewis led the union in its first strike for 25 years. The action enjoyed significant public support, largely because Lewis and her allies shifted the focus from union issues to social problems, such as poverty and racial inequality. The CTU was one of the first US unions to popularise the approach, known as bargaining for the common good.

When teachers in West Virginia, California and Colorado went on strike in 2018 and 2019, and there were walkouts and rallies in another seven states, all wore CTU red.

“‘Red for Ed’ strikes were all about defending education,” says Bob Bruno, a labour professor at University of Illinois-Chicago. “That’s a sea change, and that’s also bargaining for the common good, and again leads back to CTU and Karen Lewis.”

Lewis endured losses, too. The CTU failed to block Emanuel’s plan to close 50 schools, a move she described as “racist” and “classist”. When she contemplated running for mayor against him in 2014, her supporters donned buttons saying, “Run Karen Run”. But she was forced to abandon the plan after a brain cancer diagnosis. She suffered a stroke three years later, followed by a re-emergence of the cancer.