If it drags on long enough, the strike that began Monday will inevitably draw comparisons to the tough stand taken by Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and New Jersey against tax-draining public employee unions. Almost inevitably, it will have Republicans waxing nostalgic for President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
But these are Chicago city employees, and there’s little President Barack Obama can do about it directly except walk a fine line between the teachers’ unions, among his strongest supporters, and his education reforms — some of them at issue in Chicago — that they largely oppose.
Much as he would probably like to, Obama cannot totally distance himself from this contentious labor dispute of at least 26,000 striking teachers, affecting more than 350,000 students and, of course, their parents.
The mayor of Chicago is Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, longtime political operative and the man most recently charged with galvanizing pro-Obama super PACs. Obama’s education secretary is Arne Duncan, who was chief executive of Chicago Public Schools from 2001 through 2008.
The Illinois State Board of Education says the average Chicago teacher has a tenure of 13.7 years and a salary of $71,200. The offer on the table is a 16 percent pay raise over four years. It is an extremely generous proposal in hard economic times like these and one that the school system — now running a deficit it estimates at $712 million — can’t afford. But as usually is the case with public employee unions, it has representatives on both sides of the bargaining table: the union negotiators themselves, and the Democratic elected officials beholden to the hefty financial donations given them by the unions.
To the thousands of teachers who have lost their jobs elsewhere, this has to look like a pretty good deal. Randi Weingarten, president of the Chicago union’s parent American Federation of Teachers, blamed the strike on teachers feeling “completely disrespected.” That may not strike most people as sufficient reason for shutting down the nation’s third-largest school system. And most people would see a 16 percent pay hike as extremely generous.
Emanuel had infuriated the teachers by extending the system’s shorter-than-average school day and rescinding a 4 percent pay raise. He also wants to increase the role that improving test scores play in teacher evaluations and has balked at a union demand that laid-off teachers have first crack at jobs elsewhere.
Republicans portray the strike as typical of the bare-knuckled Chicago political milieu that produced Obama. GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney said it was a typical example of teachers unions placing their interests over those of the children. True and true.
For Obama, the only good that can come out of this strike is a quick end.