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Year after strike, mayor offers CTU president olive branch

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis  Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times files

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times files

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Updated: October 12, 2013 6:25AM

The seven-day strike by Chicago Public School teachers that was the city’s first in 25 years marked its one-year anniversary on Tuesday. The mayor who helped to instigate it apparently wants to make certain it doesn’t happen again.

Asked Tuesday to assess his relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union one year later, Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked about the olive branch he sent recently to CTU president Karen Lewis.

“When Karen was ill, I sent her a note to say, `I wish you well. I wish you a happy, healthy new year as well’ and I look forward, when she feels better, to us actually having a conversation,” Emanuel said.

Lewis, who was overwhelmingly re-elected in May to another three-year term, refused to disclose the nature of her recent illness, but said she is feeling better.

She called the mayor’s get-well note a definite olive branch.

“With his ideas, there’s always a rush to implement instead of taking the appropriate time to plan. But, I do hope his reaching out is an indication that he is willing to talk — not only to me but to our members, parents and communities — and do some real listening because he’s done some real damage,” Lewis said.

“We have to have some way of addressing grievances that don’t just all sit in the space of one person. I’m really looking forward to having an honest conversation with him about his education policies, preferably profanity-free.”

But, she warned, “I’m not going to start over because, when we started, he had the upper hand. Now, we have to re-set. That’s about equilibrium, respect and being able to move forward.”

To say that Emanuel and Lewis have had a difficult relationship would be an understatement. Their relationship is non-existent.

The mayor started things off on the wrong foot by allegedly using the F-word during one of his earliest private meetings with Lewis.

He then attempted to run roughshod over her by raising the strike threshold and muscling through his signature plan for a longer day. The mayor’s missteps inadvertently helped Lewis garner a 90 percent strike vote that would have been unthinkable otherwise. During a massive pre-strike rally, Lewis denounced the mayor as a “liar and a bully.”

On Sept. 10, 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, fueled by their anger against a mayor who stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and offered schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers contract and immediately implement his longer school day.

The strike damaged Chicago’s reputation and turned Lewis into a folk hero with the guts to fight City Hall.

Since the strike, Emanuel and Lewis have gone toe-to-toe on the mayor’s plan to close nearly 50 schools, a battle the mayor won.

Lewis announced an aggressive campaign to register 100,000 new voters by 2015, recruit and train candidates for mayor and alderman and help bankroll their campaigns.

She also used a recent City Club speech to denounce the mayor’s “rich white friends” whom, she claims, want to privatize public education.

Given the bitter history between the two and their strong personalities, Lewis was asked how she expects to forge a better working relationship with Emanuel.

“His poll numbers have told him he’s made mistakes,” she said.

“I’m not gonna have any illusions about who the mayor is. I don’t think he’s changed or the way he works has changed. That’s OK. He is who he is. But, I’m always willing to work with people who want quality, publicly-funded education for our children.”


Twitter: @fspielman

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