Chicago Teachers Strike Headache for Democrats

Mike Elk

Rahm Emanuel

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike has quickly changed the political conversation from Democrats vs. Republicans to how both parties attack unions. That’s an awkward conversation Democrats don’t want.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney seized the chance to embarrass his rival by painting the president as pro-teacher while siding with President Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, against the unions.

I am disappointed by the decision of the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education,” Romney said in a statement. President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president’s commitment to you.’”

Emanuel quickly tried to extricate himself from Romney’s embrace.

While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here, and I don’t give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass or whatever the president,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a press conference Monday. While I appreciate Mitt Romney’s statement, on behalf of the kids and the parents of the city of Chicago, if he wants to help, he can then determine that when it comes to his tax cuts, he will never cut the Department of Education and the funding that’s necessary.”

It should be noted, however, that in the past, Tea Party groups have supported Emanuel in his fight with the Chicago teachers. The CTU recently released a 24-minute video, Chicago Teachers Union Vs. Astroturf Billionaires,” that outlines the various Tea Party and Koch-funded groups that Emanuel has worked with in his battle with the CTU. Well-known Tea Party activist Andrew Marcus has boasted of working with Emanuel to take on the unions in Chicago. A film directed by Marcus, A Tale of Two Missions, features an interview with Mayor Emanuel.

Needing labor’s support to win the election, the White House has so far distanced itself from its former chief of staff and remained neutral in the matter.

“[President Obama’s] principal concern is for the students and the families who are affected by the situation. And we hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interest of Chicago’s students,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney at a press conference today.

The Obama campaign also backed away from taking a stand on the strike, but in doing so also reminded voters of the administration’s education-reform program – which has drawn consternation from some unions.

President Obama’s leadership has led to groundbreaking reforms in our schools, earning wide bipartisan cooperation and praise,” said Obama campaign spokersperson Ben LaBolt in an emailed response to Romney. In contrast, Gov. Romney has said class size isn’t a problem and he would cut taxes for millionaires by gutting education funding, leading to fewer teachers. Playing political games with local disputes won’t help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers. But President Obama’s plans will lift our schools and our students.”

Some in organized labor say that President Obama opened up the bipartisan attack on teachers’ unions in a speech at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in March of 2009 calling on teacher unions to allow more flexibility in their contracts. Under President Obama’s Race to the Top program, states have been rewarded with extra funding for crafting laws that spend heavily on non-union charter schools and eliminate job security provisions from teacher union contracts. In 2010, President Obama even endorsed the mass firing of unionized teachers in Central Falls, RI.

In May, Obama for America Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter tweeted a link to a Washington Post article saying, FACT CHECK: Romney off on Obama’s relationship with teachers’ unions; it’s anything but cozy: http://​wapo​.st/​L​u0nYZ.” The article went on to describe how the Obama administration has taken on teachers unions. Cutter was later forced to backtrack on her tweets, sending out a second one hours later saying, Pres. fights for unions/​teachers b/​c he believes in them-Mitt dishonest about being beholden to them.”

In a sign of its lukewarm feeling toward the Democratic administration, CTU President Karen Lewis refused to greet Vice President Joe Biden during the AFT’s July convention in Detroit. The CTU delegation also refused to wear Obama-Biden T-shirts handed out for Biden’s speech, instead opting for the red CTU shirts. 

Some pundits, such as the Washington Posts Chris Cillizza, say the CTU strike may hurt Obama’s re-election chances. The strike set off by Obama’s former chief of staff presents an awkward conversation about unions that does not fit into the Democratic Party platform of standing up for workers.

Also, Rahm Emanuel recently agreed to serve as a head of fundraising for the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA. Emanuel has since suspended his role as the head of fundraising so that he could focus on resolving the teachers’ strike. His absence from fundraising while dealing with the teachers strike could hurt the amount of money Democrats have to take on Republicans in the fall. 

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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