CHICAGO — She’s brash and blunt, the tough-talking union leader who has taken on Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a bitter contract dispute regarded as a referendum on the future of the nation’s third-largest school district.
Karen Lewis is especially known for her tart tongue and flip one-liners, like telling a crowd of supporters this week that the high-stakes talks are ‘‘the silly part’’ of her day.
But she’s also a whip-smart Ivy League graduate with a long, 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.
Soon after Emanuel was elected, he suggested that students were getting ‘‘the shaft’’ from teachers because of flat test scores and a graduation rate of just over 50 percent. He rescinded a 4 percent raise, then asked the union to reopen that contract and accept a 2 percent raise in exchange for longer hours.
When union leaders refused, he tried to go around them — until the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board told him to stop.
Teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years after negotiators failed to reach a deal issues that include performance reviews based partly on student’s standardized test scores and whether laid-off teachers would have first chance at job openings.
She recently called the mayor a bully and a liar, and their already strained relationship seems to have deteriorated since the strike began.
Lewis, 59, 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’s 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. It’s in the work we do,’’ she said.
Lewis attended public school in the same area where President Obama has a home. The daughter of two Chicago public school teachers, she graduated from Dartmouth as the only black woman in her class. Lewis taught in Chicago schools for 22 years and became a National Board Certified teacher, one of the profession’s highest qualifications.