Chicago Education Reform Resistance Teachers Unions

Emma Tai: Karen Lewis Taught Us to Believe That We Could Win

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Emma Tai is executive director of United Working Families of Chicago. She describes in Jacobin the powerful lesson that she learned from Karen Lewis.

She writes:

At a time of austerity and teacher demonization, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis — whose death at age sixty-seven was announced today — dared to believe that educators and the working class as a whole could fight back and win...

The 2012 strike put tens of thousands of people in the streets of Chicago. At a time of austerity and widespread demonization of teachers, both in Chicago and around the country, the CTU walked off the job insisting that we deserved, and could actually win, schools and a city that served Chicago’s working class. The strike put black, Latinx, and working-class people, and a workforce that is overwhelmingly women, in the streets by the tens of thousands against a neoliberal mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to say that the schools and city belonged to us. Astonishingly, they won.

That strike changed the political landscape of Chicago and the whole country, touching off a wave of teachers’ strikes that continue to this day and that have even put ideas like a general strike back on the table for the first time in generations.

Up to that point, I had been trained as an organizer to pick winnable fights. I had been to dozens of Board of Education meetings where community members and students waited in line for hours in order to compete for a lottery spot to have two minutes to speak to the school board — a board that, in a travesty of basic democracy, was and still is handpicked by the mayor rather than elected by Chicagoans, and thus has no form of accountability to the average parents, students, and residents of the city they serve. I had watched parents and students, crying, dragged out of those meetings by security guards, their voices going unheard by the board.

But seeing the streets filled with tens of thousands of teachers and supporters in red changed my whole conception of what I thought we could win and transformed what I let myself imagine. We didn’t have to fight for crumbs from the people who ran the city. We, the working class, could run the city ourselves...

Karen Lewis taught all of us a lesson: Not to settle. If you fight, you can win. If you capitulate early, you never win. If your cause is just, don’t give in.

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