CTU prepares for contract negotiations without Karen Lewis

Chicago Teachers Union members rally Wednesday, May, 24, 2012.
Chicago Teachers Union members rally Wednesday, May, 24, 2012.

By: Julie Woon

Karen Lewis’ battle with brain cancer comes at a pivotal time for the Chicago Teachers Union. The union is preparing to start negotiating a new contract with the Chicago Public Schools system two years after it engaged in a historic strike that closed Chicago public schools for a week. A firm date for negotiations to begin has not been announced, but Lewis’ announcement this week that she is stepping aside as president of the CTU suggests she will not be taking part in the first round of discussions.

Often times an organization’s strength is highly dependent on the leader, and without a succession plan in place, it can be hard to maintain cohesion when that person can no longer function, organization experts say. “Ideally, they [the union] have thought of this ahead of time and they have someone to step in,” says Bonnie Hagemann, CEO of Executive Development Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in executive development. “Otherwise, employees start to flounder and latch on to whoever takes the lead roll.”

For the moment, that person is union Vice President Jesse Sharkey. He has served in the position since June 2010, mostly staying out of the limelight. Union officials have not said if he will remain in the position for the duration of Lewis’ three-year term, which began in 2013, or if someone else will be brought in to permanently replace Lewis in case she cannot return. Asked whether there is a contingency plan for the current situation, Chicago Teachers Union spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin declined to comment.

Lewis has been the high-profile voice of the union in previous negotiations. “She was our lead spokesperson at the table. She had a lot of impact on the tenor and tone of those talks … That’s going to be the hardest thing about Karen’s illness. Those are big shoes to fill in,” Sharkey told the Chicago Sun-Times Wednesday. However, he said he is sure of his ability to work through the negotiations process.

The prognosis for Lewis’ return depends on what type of cancer she has, medical experts say. She has declined to provide details and has requested privacy.

The results of the surgical removal of brain tumors and the side effects of follow-up treatment can vary widely, physicians say. Brain tumors can cause, “headaches, seizures and symptoms specific to the location of the tumor,” says Dr. Rimas Lukas, the director of medical neuro-oncology at the University of Chicago. “For example, tumors in the location responsible for movement can cause motor problems.”

He added: “It’s quite variable dependent on the type of cancer … Some people go back to work the next day if the doctor thinks it’s okay. Some patients never go back to work.”

After surgery, aggressive treatments to prevent or slow down reoccurrence include radiation and chemotherapy. That can cause fatigue, discomfort, constipation and even low blood cell counts. According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year survival rate for brain and other nervous system cancers is 33.4 percent.

To see a timeline of the Chicago Teachers Union activity, click here.