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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.