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Exclusive: CTU’s Karen Lewis on Emanuel, Vitale — and Steinem

Chicago Teachers UniPresident Karen Lewis  |  Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

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Updated: October 21, 2012 3:05PM



Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis hasn’t heard from Mayor Rahm Emanuel yet — but she has heard from Gloria Steinem and hundreds of supporters from as far away as Australia, France, Italy and Canada.

And she isn’t interested in running for mayor, but she will run for a second term as president of the Chicago Teachers Union.

As Lewis basked Wednesday in what some say is her new status as a union rock star, she looked back on a teachers’ contract battle and seven-day strike that won her national and even international attention. But she also looked forward.

She dug in her heels about an optional fourth year of the contract after hearing what CPS officials had shared in an “on background’’ briefing with local education reporters Wednesday.

District officials said that if CPS had the money to cover an extra three percent raise in year four and was willing to extend the contract to four years, an automatic change in the teacher evaluation formula would come with it. Student growth — including on standardized tests — would rise from the state minimum of 30 percent to 35 percent as part of any year-four deal, they said.

“Oh really? Hmm,” said Lewis, her back stiffening.

“Well, we would probably not extend then. I’m glad they mentioned that,’’ Lewis said.

“What I understood is that we were going to have a joint committee to decide how we were going to tweak that. So since they decided we’re going to 35 percent growth, I guess we won’t go to year four…

“So they are already not in good faith about the joint committee we’re going to have….

“The law is 30 percent. So why do we have to pile onto the state law? … This is all the board showing off. . . . They are showing off [so they can say] ‘I’m tougher than you are on your people.’ It’s ridiculous.’’

Lewis sat down Wednesday for an exclusive print interview with the Chicago Sun-Times at the same mahogany table where she stared down Chicago School Board President David Vitale and other CPS negotiators.

Vitale, she said, was a “sweet guy’’ who “absolutely’’ played a critical role in the final weeks of the talks.

Vitale sent her a “nice text’’ after the union’s House of Delegates voted Tuesday to end the city’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years, Lewis said. As the system now struggles to find $74 million to pay for the first year of the deal, Vitale said he “looked forward to working together to find solutions,’’ Lewis said.

“I’m very excited about working with him,’’ Lewis said.

Waiting for Lewis in a very messy private office only a few feet away, was a stack of mail two feet high, over 100 voice mail messages and over 300 emails.

The CTU’s battle, especially over issues such as teacher evaluations and layoff policies that districts nationwide also are wrestling with resolving, has prompted calls and emails from not only Boston, New York, St. Paul and Washington, D.C., but also Australia, France, Italy and Canada, Lewis said.

Has the mayor called?

“No.”

But “I’m not surprised he didn’t call,’’ said Lewis, who said previously the mayor threw the f-bomb at her during one of their early private meetings.

“I haven’t had a relationship with him so I don’t know why it would start today,’’ Lewis said. “People want to make this out to be a big fight. I don’t even think about him.’’

However, Lewis conceded, union literature about the deal specifically mentions that if the two sides don’t extend the contract to four years, it will conclude in the middle of a mayoral campaign.

The union had wanted a two-year deal, and CPS wanted a four-year one. The timing of the three-year deal, Lewis said, was mentioned in union literature because “I’m trying to sell this to my members. Our members have a very low opinion of the mayor.’’

Lewis said the strike “absolutely’’ was worth it. She scoffed at contentions raised Wednesday by CPS officials that the union always intended to strike, no matter what, but could have avoided doing so if it had raised some creative solutions earlier.

“That’s what they have to say,’’ Lewis said. “We never always intended to strike. This was their move. The union has not had a strike in 25 years.’’

The union ultimately “needed to strike,’’ Lewis said because it did not meet a time deadline set by the House of Delegates after CPS had dragged its feet for months at the negotiating table.

The union not only won improvements in the contentious areas of job security and teacher evaluation by striking, Lewis said, but the walkout united the membership like never before and “changed the narrative.’’ It showed CPS officials — and the public who watched strike coverage on TV — that teachers were rebelling against inadequate, stifling and unfair working conditions.

The contract provision that won the biggest round of applause at Tuesday’s House of Delegates vote, Lewis said, was one that cost nothing — and was nailed down post-strike. It allowed teachers to write their own lesson plans rather than follow some superior’s pre-scripted format.

To follow some CPS formulas, Lewis said, some teachers were writing out 40-page lesson plans. Said Lewis: “That’s crazy stuff.”

At the House of Delegates, Lewis said, as lesson plan contract language she herself had written was projected on a screen, “you wouldn’t have believed the roar. That’s how bad things got that people got excited about lesson plans. That’s how micromanaged we have become in Chicago.’’

The strike forced Lewis, a normally observant Jew who converted 20 years ago, to work through the Rosh Hashana holy day period — although she did participate in Sabbath services.

“I’ll steal a line from [the movie] ‘Yentl,’’’ said Lewis. “‘God will understand. I’m not so sure about the neighbors.’’’

But one highlight of the ordeal was a call from feminist and author Gloria Steinem.

How did the call go? “O – M – G,’’ Lewis said dragging out the abbreviation for “oh my god.’’ Although she was not certain, she said the call could have come in Sunday, Sept. 9 — the same day Vitale told reporters he was unable to reach Lewis for two critical hours.

Steinem, Lewis said, called to say that she was proud of the union for “standing up’’ against “teacher bashing,’’ which Steinem said amounted to “anti-feminist behavior.’’

Within a few hours of the strike announcement, a column by Steinem appeared on the union website, announcing her solidarity with the CTU.

How Lewis, a former chemistry teacher, led the union through its latest battle has some CTU members suggesting she run for mayor.

“[My] ego just isn’t that big,” Lewis said.

On a national scale, she’s garnered enough interest to run for American Federation of Teachers president. Lewis insisted she’s not interested. The only job she wants to run for is CTU president, and she will be doing so next spring.

“I don’t have any more ambitions. This is it. I didn’t even want this job,’’ Lewis said. “I don’t want any other job, that’s for sure.’’



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