CHICAGO (Reuters) - Karen Lewis, the fiery, frumpy former teacher leading striking Chicago teachers, has carefully built support for her cause of challenging education orthodoxy through community organizing in poor neighborhoods of the inner city.
Critics call her a throwback to the blustering, confrontational union bosses of the past. School district and union officials have said she was spoiling for a bare-knuckled fight in a town with a long history of union activism.
"Lewis represents the type of figure in the labor movement whose time may have passed -- the type of leader who went right to the wall and called a strike instead of sitting down to thrash out all the issues," said Dennis Judd, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Calling a strike may be enough to carry the day this time, but long term I don't think it's a winning strategy."
Randi Weingarten, president of the affiliated American Federation of Teachers who says she is actively involved in the Chicago negotiations, welcomes that feistiness. "There's a big tent in the AFT -- lots of different approaches." Lewis is "one of my leaders. She's in a very challenging situation and she deeply, deeply cares about the kids she has taught and the people she represents."
The Chicago Teachers Union president, who jokes about bulking large and once hoped to be a standup comedian, appears to enjoy taunting adversary Rahm Emanuel, the tightly wound, politically ambitious mayor of Chicago. Famous for his volcanic temper, she has said Emanuel used the "F" word in a private meeting. Lewis stood her ground.
At a Labor Day rally earlier this year, Lewis called Emanuel a liar for having denied saying that the city should not spend money on the bottom quarter of public school students. (The mayor said he never made the remark.) She also called him a bully, a charge that has followed him since his days in the White House.
During the contract talks she has exasperated veteran negotiators by showing up late and leaving during the talks to rally and encourage teachers on the picket line, who have greeted her with thunderous applause.
Their dispute has "clear national ramifications," says Weingarten. "Teachers feel beaten down ... because of austerity, because of test- rather than teacher-driven policies, because of a spike in poverty, because of the demand on them to do more with less." When they can't, they bear the blame. "That's what's created all the frustration that you hear on the picket line."
A Chicago native, Lewis has street credibility, having attended local public schools herself, unlike her key negotiating opponents who all attended private high schools or are not from Chicago. She is enormously popular with the union's rank and file. Her motion to strike garnered nearly 90 percent of the vote in June.
Lewis was a chemistry teacher at King College Prep High School, a selective enrollment high school on the city's South Side near where President Barack Obama owns a home. Married to another Chicago public school teacher, she first joined a small group of Chicago Teachers Union dissidents frustrated by the union's acquiescence in policies they believed were misguided.
They founded the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in 2008 and began building a union within the union.
The members of CORE argued that the push to transform poor-performing schools by firing staff and turning their management over to private operators in so-called charter schools was part of a broader corporate takeover of U.S. public education.
"Their campaign platform was about exposing the realities that teachers knew were true but thought they were powerless to change," said Kevin Kumashiro, a member of the Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education group.
Those realities in Chicago include children walking to school through neighborhoods full of gang violence, poverty and parents just trying to survive day-to-day. Lewis champions giving more resources to such schools to lift them up rather than closing them and opening new non-union charter schools.
Chicago's 402,000 public school students are 42.7 percent African-American, 43.7 percent Latino and only 8.5 percent white, according to school district figures.
To Lewis, racial and gender identity matter. Being the only African-American woman in her graduating class at Dartmouth in 1974 was "a really awful experience," she told Chicago magazine in an interview last year.
CORE built ties with community groups and parents in Chicago's toughest neighborhoods, where two decades of reforms championed by Republicans and Democrats alike had failed to close the racial gap in student achievement levels.
The group argued that the school closings demanded by education reformers tore apart already disadvantaged neighborhoods and reflected a broader public disinvestment in communities of color.
CORE also challenged the policies of Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief now President Barack Obama's Education Secretary, who championed charter schools, which are publicly funded but non-union and run by philanthropists and private groups. They account for 12 percent of Chicago students.
In June 2010, CORE, with Lewis at its head, won a bitterly contested fight for control of the union, pledging to resist the city's education reform agenda. Her opponents warned she would lead the union into a strike.
Weingarten blames the strike on a poisonous atmosphere created by years of efforts by successive mayors to remake the Chicago public schools and impose one overhaul after another on teachers.
"They've had 15 years of mayoral control, 15 years of the top-down, test-based approaches that all the nouveau reformers think is what helps public education," she says. In other cities, unions have come to agreements with administrators and political leaders because a more cooperative and collegial tone was set from the beginning.
"The rest of organized labor has a lot to learn" from Lewis's coalition building, said Amisha Patel, the director of the Grassroots Collaborative, made up of nearly a dozen nonprofit groups that work with disadvantaged populations in the city.
"The way you build power and move forward is by building partnerships with community organizations and allies and community residents and parents and by being clear about where you're trying to move," he said.
Next on Lewis's agenda is a plan to push legislation that would replace the city's appointed school board with an elected one. The current school board president, David Vitale, is the former Chicago Board of Trade chief executive.
Her style of combat is unlikely to soften. During a speech last fall in Seattle, Lewis shocked some when she mocked Duncan, who has a lisp.
When a video of the speech surfaced, the union defended Lewis, saying she was simply trying to "lighten the mood during a long and serious discussion about the on-going campaign to blame and vilify teachers for everything wrong with public education."