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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