A Rahm and a Hard Place

Obama stuck in the middle of Emanuel, Chicago Teachers Union fight

Emanuel, Duncan, Obama, Lewis
• September 13, 2012 5:00 am


As the Chicago Teachers Union strike enters its fourth day, President Obama finds himself stuck in the middle of the unfolding contract battle between the city and the labor union.

Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, has incurred the labor union’s ire because of his support for lengthening the school day and for teacher evaluations.

Emanuel is not Obama’s only link to Chicago’s ongoing crisis, which has left more than 300,000 students without a classroom. Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, was the chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools and "has used federal funds to advocate tying teachers’ evaluations to student performance," according to Bloomberg. The teachers’ union adamantly opposes these evaluations.

That puts Obama in a tough spot. Obama and the Democratic Party rely on labor unions for both votes and campaign efforts. The two major national teacher unions were quick to endorse Obama in 2012, noted Daniela Fairchild of the Fordham Institute, and he relied on teachers for door-to-door campaigning back in 2008.

Obama in return pledged support to labor unions: In 2007 he promised to "put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself" and "walk on that picket line with you as President" if workers were denied collective bargaining rights.

Obama has neither donned sneakers nor offered comment on his hometown’s crisis, however. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on Monday, "His principle concern is for the students and 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."

President Obama "has not expressed any opinion or made any assessment about this particular incident," Carney said.

Daniel DiSalvo, a political science professor at City College of New York, noted that the strike reveals a tension within the Democratic Party.

Vice President Joe Biden pledged White House support to the National Education Association just last year, saying the members "should have no doubt about my affection for you and the president's commitment to you."

Yet the reforms that Obama has pushed in his Race to the Top program have helped bring about the clashes with teachers unions, especially over support for teacher evaluations, DiSalvo said.

With budget crises across the country stressing state and local funds, public sector unions have been at the center of a fierce debate over pay and benefits. New Jersey governor Chris Christie has risen to national prominence by taking on his state’s powerful labor unions, going so far as to call New Jersey teacher union leaders "political thugs." Wisconsin labor unions waged an epic battle against the state government, led by Scott Walker, over the right to bargain collectively—and ultimately lost.

The Chicago teachers strike, the first in a generation, comes as a major blow to the spirit of cooperation that emerged last year after teacher unions helped create an education reform act in the Illinois legislature.

DiSalvo expressed surprise that Emanuel did not push the unions harder. Chicago teachers are among the highest paid in the nation, he noted. Adjusting for cost of living, the Chicago teachers make the equivalent of about $95,000 in New York City.

Illinois is one of only a few states that permits public union strikes, DiSalvo said, which allows the conflict over what he described as a "fight over job security" to escalate.

The Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Emanuel have what some describe as a "toxic relationship," fanning the flames of conflict.

Even the liberal New York Times editorial board declared that the Chicago teacher strike "particularly senseless."