Chicago Strike Could Affect Presidential Race

The Slatest
Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Sept. 10 2012 6:00 PM

Chicago Teachers Strike Reflects National Debate, Could Affect Presidential Campaign

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Chicago school teachers picket outside Wells High School

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

UPDATE: As teachers in Chicago went on strike Monday for the first time in 25 years and negotiations between the two sides resumed, it seemed a settlement was far from near. While there was progress on salary and a longer school day, the two sides were still divided on a number of issues, reports the Associated Press. Meanwhile, the conflict is having an effect far beyond Chicago because several of the issues at the heart of the strike, such as teacher evaluations tied to test scores, are being discussed across the country, notes the Washington Post.

In that sense, the Chicago teachers are well aware they’re not fighting just against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but also against “a powerful education reform movement that is transforming public schools across the United States,” points out Reuters.

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It didn’t take long for the labor dispute in the nation’s third-largest school district to enter the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney said the striking Chicago teachers are turning their backs on students and accused President Obama of standing behind the unions. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, called Romney’s statement “lip service,” reports the Associated Press.

Still, as the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin points out the strike gives Republicans an opportunity to remind voters that Obama has sided with labor unions, which could turn into an important talking point if the conflict continues.

Even though the White House insists Obama is not taking a role in the dispute, it could still hurt the president in other ways, points out the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza. First, there’s the Chicago connection. Plus, considering this is such an important fight for organized labor, it might distract from efforts to campaign for Obama during the final stretch of the presidential race. And to top it all off, Emanuel had to suspend his fundraising activities for the leading Democratic super PAC in order to focus on the strike.

Monday, Sept. 10 at 7:45 a.m.: The school year has barely started and more than 400,000 students in Chicago will have a day off today as teachers called for the first public-school strike in the nation’s third-largest school district in a quarter century. It’s also the first walkout in a big U.S. urban district since one in Detroit in 2006, points out the Wall Street Journal. Almost 30,000 teachers and support staff will not be working after union as school officials failed to reached an agreement during 400 hours of negotiations, reports CNN.

And while parents across the city scrambled to figure out what on earth they would do with the children Monday morning, the fallout from the strike could go far beyond President Obama’s home city. The confrontation between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the union, which began shortly after he took office, could end up affecting education reform across the country. It could also conceivably affect Obama’s presidential campaign if the work stoppage isn’t resolved quickly and leads to straining of relations between Democrats and national labor unions, points out Reuters.

Considering he conflict comes at a time when unions are finding themselves on the defensive over collective bargaining by public employees, the issue is being watched across the country, notes the Associated Press.

Still, none of the national implications much matter for the parents trying to figure out where they will send their kids. The school district will open 144 schools in the morning, although parents have been urged to find other alternatives. Needless to say, their frustration will only grow if the walkout lasts more than a couple of days, points out the Chicago Sun Times.

After negotiating all day, school board President David Vitale essentially threw up his hands late Sunday, saying there was nothing more to offer after the district put forward a proposal that would give teachers a 16-percent pay raise over four years, plus other benefits. Yet the union insists that while they could be close to agreeing on compensation, their main concerns now have to do with health benefits and a teacher evaluations system, which, of course, ties in with job security, reports the Chicago Tribune.

"I believe this is avoidable because this is a strike of choice," Emanuel said at a news conference, reports the Chicago Tribune.

Fitch Ratings had warned a strike would make it “difficult” for the nation’s third-largest district to balance its budget and improve educational standards, reports Bloomberg.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the "Today's Papers" column from 2006 to 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoliti.