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Teaching Profession Opinion

The Chicago Teachers Strike, Week 2

By Rick Hess — September 17, 2012 3 min read
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Up until Sunday, word on the street was that the Chicago strike would definitely end over the weekend. If you’d asked me on Thursday or Friday, I’d have put the likelihood that kids and teachers would be back in school today at better than 95%. (This is why I try to limit my gaming.) But the union decided not to accept the latest contract deal on Sunday night, and now CTU president Karen Lewis is saying the earliest kids might get back to school is Wednesday. As this thing bleeds into its second week, the story gets thornier.

First, the CTU is looking like it might come out of this astonishingly well. Karen Lewis is becoming the anti-Michelle Rhee for teachers who’ve yearned for a fire-breathing anti-evaluation, pro-LIFO champion. Despite losing even the New York Times editorial page last week, and with a confused initial message that seemed to suggest the strike was mostly about personal pique, with the grab bag of demands (air conditioning, retaining a short school day, social workers, etc.) mostly a rationalization, the striking teachers are holding fast--and seem to be in no hurry to get this done. The longer they hold out, and the more desperate Chicago families become, the more serious the CTU starts to look. Indeed, I’m now hearing murmurs that Lewis may be angling to challenge Randi Weingarten for AFT president. Real or not, such whispers may force Randi to guard her flank and make it harder for her to find common ground with “reformers” and the Obama administration.

Second, Rahm Emanuel is about as tough a Democrat as you’re going to find. And he entered this fight seeming to hold a pretty strong hand. Yet, as the strike continues, it looks like he’s losing traction. Having the CTU reject his deal yesterday, and then casually note that they won’t be voting on anything until Tuesday, is a blow to his air of command. Folks who follow urban politics have said to me that yesterday’s dramatics wouldn’t have happened under Daley--that the CTU would have been too afraid of the repercussions to reject a tentative deal and stretch out the strike. Meanwhile, Rahmbo has been surprisingly quiet. Why isn’t he on the news fighting for the high ground and brow-beating the CTU (like he used to do to House Republicans?) It’s not clear whether the White House is leaning on him to keep it civil or he’s making strategic calculations, but it’s looking like an angry CTU has got him flat-footed. If he winds up giving a 2-2-3 raise, losing recall rights, and doesn’t get much out of the CTU (that’s the deal that was being talked about this weekend), Rahm’s national reputation could take a hit... along with that of Democratic reformers.

Third, just as the story was picking up speed last week, the explosion of anti-American violence in the Middle East captured the media’s eye. Interest in Chicago may pick back up this week. If it doesn’t and Chicago stays off the front page, the stakes are smaller. If it reignites and stretches out, however, President Obama may start getting pressed to get involved. So far, he’s ably steered clear of the imbroglio. But, if things get to the point that there’s a media drumbeat for him to speak up, the risks for him are real: he can’t afford to alienate the unions, but he doesn’t want to say anything that’ll suggest to swing voters he’s wishy-washy on the symbolically important question of education reform.

Fourth, developments in Chicago threaten to put Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) and their allies in an uncomfortable place. If you remember, DFER president Joe Williams, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and other prominent education reformers attacked Wisconsin governor Scott Walker in 2011 for pushing to narrow the scope of collective bargaining. Williams, Duncan, and similar reform-minded Democrats denounced Walker as an anti-union extremist, and said they believed in working with unions. The Dems insisted that you could get dramatic reforms without changing the rules around collective bargaining. Well, the more painful the Chicago fight becomes, the more the CTU digs in, and the less Emanuel ultimately gets for hundreds of millions in new pay, the less credible the DFER line becomes.

If even Rahmbo can’t follow through on tough-minded school reforms, while offering more pay in a tough economy, it’ll raise questions about the seriousness of less combative Dems. Short-term, that’s bad for DFER. Long-term, it’s bad for the unions if all these vaguely sympathetic Dems decide they have to choose between teacher quality and working with unions.

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