Debate flares over Chicago Teachers Union leadership as Lewis explains (sort of) her support for Barbara Byrd Bennett while failing to provide support for the union's local leaders...

Some might say it was a long time coming, but the debate within the Chicago Teachers Union over the priorities of the union leadership began flaring into the open around May Day 2017 after CTU President Karen Lewis appeared in federal court to support convicted federal criminal Barbara Byrd Bennett while failing regularly over the past two years or more to support the union's local school leaders or to demand a fair contract for the members.

The chronology was simple. On April 28, 2017, Barbara Byrd Bennett appeared in the U.S. District Court at the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago to hear her sentence in the "SUPES Scandal." Byrd Bennett had pleaded guilty on federal corruption charges for her role in a series of no-bid contracts that awarded to a former employer more than $23 million in Chicago school dollars while the school district was (and is) in what the media and others called a "financial crisis." While ignored by most of those in the court, seated behind Byrd Bennett was Karen Lewis, along with two other prominent union people. Lewis told a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times in essence that she was in court to support Byrd Bennett.

But for the previous two years (or more) Lewis had been talking about how the school system was "broke on purpose" and how any financial relief had to come from "Springfield." This line broke with previous union policy, which instead of simply following the party line of Chicago Public Schools (and the Emanuel administration) had been critical of CPS budgetary priorities -- both in revenue and expenditures. Critique was ended abruptly on Lewis's orders, and instead of a general critique of CPS financial priorities, the union developed a logo and campaign demanding that Illinois provide the money for Chicago's public schools. This demand ignored the fact that Chicago is a relatively wealthy city, while funding for Chicago's schools from local property taxes is low by comparison with the adjacent six (or ten) country suburban "Greater Chicago Area."

The union leadership refused to provide a critique of CPS finances, and wound up instead in court alongside the boss in a claim that Illinois school spending was racist. That claim was thrown out of court by a local judge finally on the morning of April 28. That same day, in the afternoon, Lewis was in federal court in support of one of the most corrupt people ever to head the third largest school system in the USA.

While Lewis was prominent in support of the former boss, her absence in support of the union's local school leaders has been widely noted over the past several years. Most recently, Lewis (and the other union officers) were conspicuously absent at a rally at Saucedo Elementary School in support of teacher Sarah Chambers. Chambers was dumped from the school without explanation the day before Spring vacation began. While the union's vice president, Jesse Sharkey, did speak in support of Chambers at the April 26 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education, there was nothing from Lewis, who had clearly not shied from the media limelight since she was first elected union president in June 2010. An irony noted by many was that the election to the second term was led by Chambers, who was not only a highly regarded teacher, but who also was a leader of the CORE (Concerned Organization of Rank and file Educators) caucus that put Lewis into power in 2010 and re-elected her by a landslide in 2013.

As a result of the growing realization among the rank and file of the union that at least some of the union's leaders had apparently abandoned their interests for other priorities, the shocking actions by the union's president during the last week of April 2017 was not surprising. Earlier, Lewis had tried to get the union's members to call a second one day so-called "strike" on May 1, 2017. The attempt failed, as the members were already suffering from the impact of the new union contract, which fails to protect them from "furlough days" ordered unilaterally by the administration. In January 2017, CTU members learned that they were being forced to take four "furlough days" as a result of the supposed financial crisis facing CPS. At the same time, many of them slowly learned that the union's leadership had agreed not to oppose "furlough days" in the contract that was rammed through at the last minute before a strike on Columbus Day 2016.

The discussions about the direction of the union and its leadership continue, despite the refusal of the leaders of CORE (including Chambers) to hold a caucus meeting for the two months prior to May 1, 2017. Claiming that the caucus needed to "grow," the caucus Steering Committee disbanded the caucus's monthly meetings for the first time in nearly a decade. Instead, the caucus held three "regional" events (they were explicitly not to be recognized as meetings) in March and then again in April 2017. Resolutions -- the main one of which was to be in opposition to the so-called "strike" on May 1 -- were not allowed the regional events. This was despite the fact that the CORE constitution and by-laws state that the caucus, which prides itself on its "rank and file" roots, is supposed to meet once a month.

Lewis has failed to explain these contradictions as of this report on May 3, 2017. The union's House of Delegates is scheduled to meet on May 3, 2017. This reporter is a member of the HOD.


May 3, 2017 at 10:48 AM

By: Jo-Anne Cairo

CTU Leadership / 3B's

Thank You for telling the truth of the things that are happening at he CTU. It is really sad that the CTU Leadership has become secretive and not being open and honest to ALL their members. It is sad to meet teachers from all over the city who are clueless of what's going on because they believe what the Leaders have dictated is the truth.

May 3, 2017 at 1:52 PM

By: Susan Hickey, LCSW

Not surprised at Lewis' behavior

The arrogance of the CTU leadership has been growing stronger since the unopposed election of 2016. They are even trying to muzzle anyone or any group that may not follow the company soundbites. I received a phone call that I am not allowed to give out details of an open committee meeting and I hurt a snowflake's feeling by calling her out in a comment I wrote in Substance News. I was told that I am stifling freedom of expression. When I reread my comment I noticed I only called out Maria Moreno who is very thin skinned. She was abusive in the meeting monopolizing the discussion with the tired soundbites. At an earlier Clinician Steering Committee meeting, she waited until a clinician BBT member and I left the meeting to criticize us. We got the officers there to explain why clinicians were abandoned at the last bargaining session held on Columbus Day. I was taken off the BBT shortly before then and I had different members of the BBT say that I would have been able to persuade the continuation of the bargaining with us going on strike! I made my displeasure known and was called to meet with the CTU officers and other admin to discuss my outspokenness. I retorted that they need to not only talk with me but with the clinician delegates. They did come to that meeting and kept touting the 'wonderful' wins they got including community schools (which by the way will CUT clinician jobs as the mental health services will be provided mainly by outside agencies). Karen actually said we are too small of a group to hold up the negotiations! There is a rule in unionism- you're only good as a union if you protect the most vulnerable group!

The CTU leadership is drunk with power right now and they need to have a rude awakening. The grassroots of members are looking for leadership not being sold out!

May 3, 2017 at 8:19 PM

By: Al Korach

new ctu leadership

I feel that at this point in time President Lewis has killed her ability to lead the CTU.I think its time for a new individual or a new caucus to be ready.

May 5, 2017 at 2:45 AM

By: Rich Gibson

Lewis' Appallng Quisling role

Call me naive, but every time I think the bottom has been reached in Quisling union top official behavior some union boss reaches even lower. For Lewis to back BBB may mean more than Lewis is just a rat, as we knew, but perhaps there is more of a rat story than we know. After all, Lewis is backing, not only a boss, but one who stole from some of the poorest of the poor. What other ties might Lewis have with BBB and associates?

May 6, 2017 at 11:22 PM

By: Jean Schwab


Early in BBB's tenure in Chicago, Karen Lewis described BBB as a person that would work on some issues with the Union and did. That was before BBB got herself in trouble. It is not unusual to see people support a person for the good they did and condemn the mistakes they made. That is what Lewis has done in her speeches and talks about BBB. I never heard Lewis defend BBB for her mistakes.

May 9, 2017 at 11:23 AM

By: Jean Schwab

Let's Talk

George, I've known you for years and I know your deep commitment to children, families, teachers(staff workers) and a wonderful education for all. You have helped so many people that you probably don't even know. Substance news really cares about people and has a commitment to lifting people

up. I've not always gotten a long with CTU leaders and I know by observing and interviewing people that this CTU leadership is also committed to the same values as you. I was hoping that you and Susan Hickey could get on the Executive Board to add your ideas to the discussion. I am sorry that both of you were not allowed a chance. Anyway, I know that all of you are honest and committed educators and I hope people write you and tell you how you have helped them through the years- make it a memory page. I know the CTU (with all it's problems in the past and also Substance has helped me. Could you and the CTU sit down and listen to each other? I think you have something valuable to say and the CTU does Too. I support both of you and have only good wishes for you.

May 9, 2017 at 2:22 PM

By: Bob Busch


I wonder if Ms Lewis's health is causing this

dis-connect from the reality of our situation ?

May 10, 2017 at 11:50 AM

By: Susan Hickey, LCSW

Lost purpose by CORE

I appreciate your comments, Jean, but must disagree with the premise that that the CTU leadership is totally committed to its members. You are right that they care about the community as they have been pouring a lot of money into those community organizations. I have no problem with supporting community groups but do think they should be open about what they are doing with CTU money. Thet are in a joint committee with CPS to discuss community schools with 10 CTU appointments to that committee. 7 of the 20 CTU positions are community organizations NOT ONE CLINICIAN IS ON THAT COMMITTEE WHO HAVE THE EXPERTISE OF PHYSICAL AND MENTAL HEALTH. I worked part time and saw a number of things that if the rank and file knew they would be appalled! Jean, you need to speak with members as they are very disenchanted with the CORE leadership and are looking for change; either from within CORE or not.

I have tired conducting dialogue with CTU leadership but it was not welcomed.

May 10, 2017 at 9:03 PM

By: Susan Hickey, LCSW

CORRECTION to my last comment

The CTU has 10 positions on the joint committee with the Board on the 'community schools', The outside community agencies have 7 of those 10 positions.

May 11, 2017 at 8:40 PM

By: Jean Schwab

Thank You

Susan, Thanks I will look into that because I do believe that teachers need to be represented.

May 16, 2017 at 3:55 PM

By: Edward F Hershey

Bring that to the House


There are no clinicians on that "Community Schools" committee, which involves clinician work?

If that is true, it needs to be brought to the attention of the House of Delegates right away, preferably by a clinician.

-- Ed Hershey

Delegate, Lindblom

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