With teacher insurrections breaking out from one side of the country to the other, it’s time to pay homage to Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
She was a political badass with a capital B long before it was fashionable.
I’m talking about the teachers’ strike that woke this city up back in 2012—the precursor to recent walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona.
I see many similarities and points of contrast.
In terms of fashion, many of today’s striking teachers choose red—a color made fashionable in Chicago during CTU actions.
In terms of organizing, they’ve taken a page from Chicago in how they organized. Soon after she was elected president of the union in 2010, Lewis hired a community organizer or two and sent them to build networks throughout the city.
Thus, the teachers had allies on the ground—if not in office—when they went on strike. OK, so there were a few north-side Nervous Nellies who used to call me to complain: Ben, why does Karen have to be so mean to the mayor?
You know, like she was taking her instructions from me.
But most people in Chicago sided with the teachers—if only because Karen is thoroughly more likable than Rahm. I mean, even Rahm’s north-side crowd would concede that.
A big difference between then and now is that these current strikes and walkouts are occurring in red states that went for Trump and are by and large ruled by Republicans.
Apparently, teachers are making inroads with residents who can’t understand why it’s a good idea to pay crummy wages to the people who teach their children.
Somehow this logic managed to elude the school “reform” crowd, which seems to think you can recruit the best and brightest to a career in teaching by paying them less, working them more, taking away their benefits, and blaming them for everything that goes wrong in a classroom.
And that brings us to Rahm. To hear him talk back in the first years of his reign, you’d think that “bad teachers” were the only reasons low-income kids in Chicago didn’t test as high as wealthy kids in Wilmette, his beloved hometown.
Rahm raced into office determined to build his national brand by proving to America that he was the kind of Democrat who wasn’t afraid to bash the teachers’ union.
Within a year the teachers were on strike, essentially ’cause he was asking them to work longer for less while he closed public schools and replaced them with nonunion, privately run, publicly funded charters.
In other words, Rahm and the Dems were on the wrong side of that fight—even if they still don’t realize it.
In contrast, the teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona are supported by the national Democratic Party. The Dems see teacher activism as a key part of the larger anti-Trump resistance that may help them take back Congress from the Republicans in November.
The teacher walkouts are “a real rejection of the Republican agenda that doesn’t favor working-class people,” Sabrina Singh, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee recently told the New York Times. “Republicans aren’t on the side of the teachers. The Democrats are.”
I can’t think of many, if any, Democrats who were talking that way when Chicago’s red-clad teachers took to the streets back in 2012.
Most of the Dems—especially the local ones—were hiding under the table, afraid to upset the boss.
All those teacher-bashing Dems, like Rahm, are like investors who bought a stock while it was selling it at its peak.
In their case, they bought into that “reform” nonsense, thinking it would help them advance their careers. Now they’re stuck holding shares of a company with falling stock.
I almost feel sorry for them. “Almost” being the key word.