Head Of Chicago Teachers Union Rose The Ranks

At the center of the Chicago teachers' strike are Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the head of the teachers' union, Karen Lewis. To learn more about Lewis and the relationship between the teachers' union and the mayor's office, Audie Cornish talks to Joel Hood, education reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From Rahm Emanuel now to his formidable foe in these negotiations, Karen Lewis, the head of the teachers' union. Lewis in recent weeks has called the mayor a bully and of his leadership style has said, quote, "The whole idea of an imperial mayoralty where you wave a magic wand or cuss someone out and things happen is untenable."

To learn more about Lewis, we turn to Joel Hood. He's a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Welcome, Joel.

JOEL HOOD: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So tell us a little bit more about Karen Lewis. Where did she come from, what's her background?

HOOD: Well, she's a Chicago native, probably grew up on the south side of the city. Her parents were public school teachers in the city. She's Ivy League-educated, attended Dartmouth. She likes to tell the story that when she graduated Dartmouth in 1974, she was the only African-American female in her graduating class, and kind of wears that proudly.

CORNISH: I read that she also rose in the ranks of the union, essentially in a group that challenge the leadership.

HOOD: Yeah. So she came from what's called the Rank-and-File Caucus. She was a longtime science teacher here, a very good one. She was always very active in union causes. She's, you know, one of the more impassioned speakers that they have in the union. And so it was sort of natural when they're looking for strong leadership a couple of years ago, they sort of selected her, and there was a big groundswell of support to get her in that office.

CORNISH: Now, her speaking style at times has actually gotten her into some trouble. We have a clip of her talking about the former head of Chicago schools, and now the U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

KAREN LEWIS: This guy, who has the nerve to stand up and say: Education is a civil rights issue of our time. Now, you know he went to private school because if he had gone to public school, he'd have had that lisp fixed.

(LAUGHTER)

LEWIS: And that was an ugly one there. I'm sorry.

CORNISH: That was Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis in 2011, talking before a social justice conference of teachers in the Northwest. She apologized for these comments. She got in a lot of trouble. Teachers' union in Chicago called them outrageous. But is this kind of talk typical?

HOOD: Yeah. That was not Karen's finest moment. But she admittedly - she occasionally will stick her foot in her mouth. Just yesterday, she was at a big rally here downtown with teachers, thousands of teachers. And she signed off by saying, OK, I've got to go back to the silly part of my day. She was returning to the negotiating table to hammer out these last few remaining items.

Obviously, that rubbed a lot of people at the school district the wrong way, and they're now coming back to her today saying, you know, how can you call this the silly part of your day when tens of thousands of students are out on the streets and teachers aren't in the classroom? She's incredibly outspoken. She's incredibly passionate about what she believes in. She's kind of ideally suited for the role she has now, which is really sort of the fire and the energy of union and teacher causes here in the city. But sometimes that comes at a cost, and sometimes she says things that she shouldn't say.

CORNISH: What is the story behind her relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel?

HOOD: Well, you know, they're both incredibly strong personalities, number one. They both have incredible pressure on them from the outside. You know, Rahm is pushing for some education reform issues that are very popular among some of these national education groups that we see at work in other states. So he's got a lot of pressure to kind of deliver some of these major reforms in Chicago, which has kind of resisted a great many reforms over the years.

Karen Lewis has the eyes of the labor movement on her and has for some time. She's sort of - as much as anybody, she's sort of become the face of the education labor movement. And so there's an incredible amount of pressure on her to kind of deliver, you know, fair contracts to teachers here and really stand strong against Emanuel.

CORNISH: But what does all this mean for the negotiations? I mean, is there a concern here that this is essentially a clash of personalities and that that could have an effect on the strike?

HOOD: Well, that certainly complicates things along the way. These are contract talks that began back in November. And even when Rahm Emanuel was running for mayor more than two years ago, there was a lot of contention among teachers. You know, they held their own rally to figure out who they might endorse for mayor. And it was basically anybody but Rahm.

You know, you have a mayor who's been very outspoken in his own right, who's very strong and powerful. And, you know, he's not the kind of person to really bend on the things that he thinks are important. And Karen Lewis is much the same way.

CORNISH: Joe Hood, reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Joel, thank you

HOOD: Thank you.

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