Chicago teachers strike: Is Rahm Emanuel's test a challenge for Obama?

The Chicago teachers strike takes the struggle over union demands to a bastion of Democratic control, a concern for Mayor Emanuel and President Obama, who will need union support in November.

By , Staff writer

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    Dequita Wade walks her son, Jerome, to Paul Robeson High School, one of the few schools open for a half day during the first day of a Chicago teachers strike on Monday. Thousands of teachers walked off the job in the nation's third-largest school district for the first time in 25 years after union leaders announced that they were far from resolving a contract dispute with school district officials.
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Some 400,000 Chicago public schoolchildren stayed home from school Monday, the result of a surprise teacher’s strike that is seen as the first significant political test for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel that could also impact President Obama's reelection bid.

The Chicago Teacher’s Union announced plans to strike late Sunday evening, following a weekend of marathon negotiations that derailed over union objections to a proposed longer school day and teacher accountability measures. 

The 29,000-member union is rejecting the school district’s proposed 16 percent salary increase over four years, saying it does not adequately compensate for the rising costs of health care and other benefits. Also at stake is job security: The union wants a policy in place to hire laid-off teachers once new positions are available in the schools. Union negotiators also say that a new teacher evaluation system, which uses student performance on standardized tests as a factor in assessing the effectiveness of teachers, is unfair and could cost teachers their jobs.

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The strike is historic considering the last teacher walkout was 25 years ago. It lasted 19 days. Since then, the teacher’s union has complained of a continued drain on resources in classrooms, the deteriorating infrastructure of schools, the diversion of resources to the non-union, public charter school system, and the new lengthened school day imposed this year by the state, at the urging of the mayor. 

Intensifying the matter this time around is the vitriol between the two leading figures in the dispute: Mayor Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Both leaders did not meet directly this weekend. Last week, Emanuel, who controls the school district, dispatched Board of Education President David Vitale to negotiate on his behalf. In the recent past, Ms. Lewis has publicly called Emanuel a “liar” and a “bully.”

“We must do things differently in this city if we are to provide our students with education they so rightly deserve,” said Lewis in a press conference Sunday night.

Emanuel expressed anger at his own press conference held late Sunday. He described the union’s action as a “strike of choice” and not one that was warranted. “This is not the right thing to do to the children," he said. "It’s unnecessary. It’s avoidable and it’s wrong." He also once again defended his agenda to extend the school day by 50 minutes, saying it would make Chicago public school children more competitive.

The strike involves about 29,000 teachers and support staff in what is the nation’s third-largest school district. The 45,000 students enrolled in the city’s charter schools will not be affected.

The standoff presents a significant political liability for Emanuel, because it threatens his efforts to build Chicago into a modern, globalized city that can compete for top tier talent and resources, says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“He needs to get this right. If he’s found to be incompetent in negotiating with the teachers or miscalculated their resolve, or if he’s just too stubborn to look for points of common ground, it will raise serious issues in the long term, if he has a political future beyond mayor of Chicago,” Mr. Bruno says.

Over the past two years, labor conflicts involving public-sector unions dominated the political landscape in the Midwest, starting in Wisconsin and continuing in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Republican governors and new GOP majorities in those states have targeted union bargaining rights in an effort to cut government spending, shrink deficits, and create an economic climate more attractive to new business. In each case, critics charged that GOP leaders were driven by politics, not economics, and dubbed their actions little more than union busting.

But the standoff in Chicago involves not a tea-party Republican but a staunch Democrat in a Democratic-controlled city. Moreover, Emanuel, a former chief of staff for Mr. Obama, is a rising star in his party, who won his office with strong labor support – backing that the president will need for his own reelection bid. 

“This isn’t a case of right-wing Republican mayor or governor leading the assault, it’s coming from within the labor family of Democrats and that’s what makes it rather unusual,” Bruno says.

Long-term reforms to the beleaguered Chicago Public School system started under six-term Mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel’s predecessor. In 1988, the state allowed Mayor Daley to take control of the schools, which led to reforms including the launch of public charter schools and an emphasis on accountability through school testing.

Like the labor fights in neighboring states, the one in Chicago is economic, Emanuel says. The Chicago Public School district faces a projected budget deficit of $3 billion over the next three years. The city’s projected budget deficit is $369 million in 2013. 

Mr. Vitale told reporters late Sunday that the school district is offering the union a 16 percent salary increase equaling $320 million over the next four years. “This is not a small commitment we’re making at a time when our fiscal situation is really challenged,” he said.

If the standoff continues, there are signs it could become a liability, not just for Emanuel but also for Obama. On Monday morning, Emanuel found himself in the unusual situation of being on the same side of the issue with Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who released a statement saying he was “disappointed” by the union’s decision to strike.

Although Mr. Romney did not mention Emanuel by name, he said “teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet.”

The Romney campaign also released a statement late Monday from Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who criticized Obama's silence regarding the strike.

"President Obama’s refusal to speak out against the teachers union strike in Chicago represents an abdication of leadership," Mr. Luna said. "The president frequently talks about the need for education reform, which will give every child the skills they need to be successful in the 21st century and a chance at the American Dream. But his silence inhibits those very things and yields to the whims of special interests at the cost of students."

Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the deputy Senate majority leader, also criticized the failure of both ends of the negotiating table to reach a resolution. When speaking to CNN Monday, he said: “Both sides need to get back to the table as quickly as possible and really stay there and negotiate through the night if necessary." 

"Get it over with quickly," he added, "so we can get these kids back in school.”

Most caught off guard were Chicago parents, some of whom only learned of the strike Monday morning.

Edward Roche, a parent on the city’s West Side, said he was forced to drop his six-year-old son at emergency daycare at a local park district field house Monday. He says he is disappointed in the union’s decision to hold a strike one week after schools opened, because it confused his son, who was “very excited to learn.”

“I’m afraid of the damage this strike will do to him considering the difficult conservation I had with him about when he can go back to school,” Mr. Roche says.

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