Skip to contents

Karen Lewis Dies At 67. Former Chicago Teachers Union President Was Vocal Advocate For Educators

Lewis led the Chicago Teachers Union during its 2012 strike and considered running for mayor in 2015, only to cancel those plans when she learned she had cancer.

Karen Lewis

CHICAGO — Former teachers union President Karen Lewis has died.

Lewis, a Hyde Park native, was a passionate and vocal advocate for Chicago’s teachers and students for years, even as Chicago Public Schools closed schools and dealt with a shaky budget. She led the Chicago Teachers Union during its 2012 strike and considered running for mayor in 2015 — with some predicting she’d beat incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel — only to cancel those plans when she learned she had cancer.

Lewis died overnight Sunday. She was 67.

“The nation has lost a true champion,” Stephanie Gadlin, a former CTU spokeswoman who worked under Lewis, said in a statement. “Karen Lewis was one of the most powerful and prolific voices in public education, advocating for students, their families and the communities in which they live. For her tenure as president of the Chicago Teachers Union, she was the architect of today’s fight for education justice.

“Our city has lost a great voice.”

Credit: Linze Rice/The Girl Talk
Karen Lewis on The Girl Talk at The Hideout on Sept. 27, 2016.

Lewis was the daughter of two CPS teachers. She went to Kozminski Elementary School and Kenwood Academy High School before going to college, eventually returning to Chicago to teach at King College Prep High School and Lane Tech. She joined the CTU in 1988.

Lewis was looking ahead to retirement when, in 2008, she attended a book club meeting that reinvigorated her and inspired her to fight the privatization of schools, according to a Chicago Magazine profile. The group turned into the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, known as CORE, that wanted to give teachers a stronger voice in reshaping Chicago’s schools.

In 2010, Lewis ran for president of the teachers union, pushing a progressive policy and working against the expansion of charter schools with other CORE organizers. Their grassroots campaign rejuvenated the powerhouse union.

Lewis then led the union during a strike in 2012, the first such action from the teachers in decades. The union won salary bumps and protections for teachers who worked at schools being closed, among other things.

Lewis gained a national profile during her time with the CTU and was an outspoken critic of then-Mayor Emanuel. She considered running against him in 2015, but she stepped back after becoming ill.

Lewis stepped down from the CTU in 2018 due to health issues. Her vice president, Jesse Sharkey, is now president.

When the CTU voted to strike again in 2019, Lewis wrote an open letter to Mayor Lori Lightfoot in support of the union’s efforts.

“For far too long, the students, families and educators of Chicago have been denied the high-quality neighborhood schools they deserve,” Lewis wrote. “Our students should be learning in safe and thriving environments with social workers, nurses and guidance counselors. Our educators deserve to work in well-equipped classrooms with manageable and enforceable class sizes.”

In a tweet, Lightfoot said she and her wife are “saddened” by Lewis’ death.

The CTU posted a photo of Lewis in tribute:

This story is developing. Check back for updates.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.