Return to story
A group of teachers marches past John Marshall Metropolitan High School on Wednesday in Chicago.
CHICAGO--She's brash and blunt, a union leader known for her tart tongue and flip one-liners often aimed at Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a bitter contract dispute regarded as a referendum on the future of Chicago schools.
But Karen Lewis--who recently referred to the high-stakes talks as "the silly part" of her day--also is an Ivy League graduate with a distinguished record in the classroom and the overwhelming support of her union's 30,000 members.
Two years after she took the helm of the Chicago Teachers Union, the former chemistry teacher finds herself at the center of a nationally watched confrontation with Emanuel, the equally tough and sharp-tongued former White House chief of staff.
Teachers in the nation's third-largest school district walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years after negotiators failed to reach an agreement on issues that include performance evaluations based partly on students' standardized test scores and whether laid-off teachers would have first dibs on job openings districtwide.
The 59-year-old Lewis recently called the mayor a bully and a liar, and their relationship hasn't improved since the strike began.
She seems to be winning the public-relations battle in much of Chicago--for now. Many moms and dads have walked the picket lines with their children, and she has inspired loyalty among teachers in a union long known for infighting. Almost 90 percent of union members voted to authorize a strike.
It all comes down to her credentials and take-no-prisoners personality, supporters say.
During a Labor Day rally a week before teachers went on strike, Lewis called the negotiations "a fight for the very soul of public education."
"The commitment to the children of the city of Chicago is in our hearts, in our minds," she said to a cheering crowd. "It's in the work we do."