Karen Lewis, the former high school chemistry teacher who led the Chicago Teachers Union to an unprecedented strike in 2012, is seriously considering running for mayor of Chicago — and she’s already beating incumbent Rahm Emanuel in the polls. But what’s exciting about a potential Karen Lewis candidacy, however, isn’t Lewis herself, but rather what her popularity says about the movements that made it possible.
Increasingly, attacks on public education in the United States have also come with a surge in militant, social justice unionism from teachers across the country, often through progressive caucuses within larger city and statewide unions. The most notable of these has been Chicago’s Caucus of Rank and File Educators. CORE won a majority within the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010, and — with commitments to grassroots organizing and public education — led a strike in September 2012 with 98 percent support within the 30,000-person union. The strike leveraged pressure not only for that year’s contract negotiations with the city, but also drew attention to broader education cuts that resulted in larger class sizes, fewer music and arts programs and an influx of test-based curriculums. While results were mixed, the strike successfully defended tenure and prevented the implementation of merit pay, which would tie teachers’ compensation to students’ test scores. Perhaps most crucially, it brought the crisis of public education funding to the national stage.
In Massachusetts, the Educators for a Democratic Union successfully ran Barbara Madeloni as president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. Madeloni has been persistent in injecting conversations around race and class into her state’s public education fight, pushing a more progressive platform than is typically represented in major union leadership. In an interview with Matthew Cunningham-Cook for Jacobin, she laid out the factors behind her election: “In the context of the neoliberal regime, we are deeply alienated. I emphasized that educators don’t have to be alone; we can act with others.”
Similar progressive caucuses have cropped up in cities around the country, including the Congress of Working Educators within the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and the Movement of Rank and File Educators in New York’s United Federation of Teachers. These groups’ confrontational edge is starting to percolate upwards into the national unions. At its national convention this July, the National Education Association passed a resolution calling for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s resignation over his continued support for market-based education “reforms” like those carried out in Chicago and New Orleans.
Teachers hold incredible power in any society, and stand to become an equally powerful catalyst for left organizing in the United States. The fact that Lewis is a serious candidate for mayor, let alone a high-polling one, is a testament to the strength of grassroots, rank-and-file organizing both within unions and against the growing privatization of public services. If the recent elections of Chokwe Lumumba in Jackson, Miss., and Kshama Sewant in Seattle are any indication, teachers and other forces on the left can actually build and consolidate power in the realm of electoral politics.