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Lessons Mayor Rahm Emanuel can learn from teacher strike

Teachers supporters including Craig Cleve 7th 8th grade english as second language teacher rally outside Hyatt Regency Chicago Chicago Ill.

Teachers and supporters including Craig Cleve, a 7th and 8th grade english as a second language teacher, rally outside of the Hyatt Regency Chicago in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, September 13, 2012. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 15, 2012 9:57AM

Instead of ridiculing striking teachers for complaining about sweltering schools without air-conditioning, what if Mayor Rahm Emanuel had put his formidable fund-raising skills to work to persuade corporate donors to bankroll school air-conditioners?

Instead of raising the strike threshold and offering cash bounties to entice individual schools to immediately implement his longer school day, what if Emanuel had worked with the Chicago Teachers Union to structure the longer day?

Now that the teachers strike appears to be winding down, there are lessons to be learned for Chicago’s rookie mayor.

Timing is everything. Drop the sarcasm. Don’t over-reach. You’re not as good as you think you are at controlling the message. And above all, stop dictating and start collaborating.

“The greatest lesson is that two sides operating in a silo without talking to each other brought us to this point and both of them want the same thing: good schools,” said former state senator and mayoral candidate James Meeks, who championed the push for school vouchers.

Meeks noted that, during his tenure as chairman of the state Senate’s Education Committee, he met monthly with then-Schools CEO Arne Duncan and then-Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart.

“That has to happen. The superintendent and the head of the Chicago Teachers Union must meet on a monthly basis to discuss how to make schools better, come up with plans together, instead of handing it down to the other side,” Meeks said.

“Karen [Lewis, CTU president] wanted to be at the table when decisions were made concerning teachers. . . . [Instead], they’re antagonists. They operate on other sides of the fence.”

Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields added, “Mayor Emanuel loves to start out by reaching for the stars on everything he does. But he bit off more than he can chew when he picked this fight with labor. Because of his actions, the teachers and all public employees are united. Mayor Daley managed to skillfully avoid that.”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th), a mayoral ally, said a key is not to get baited with rhetoric.

“Hindsight is always 20/20, but it’s always important when you’re dealing with labor issues, particularly in times of financial distress, to try as much as possible to not say or do anything provocative and keep the rhetoric as respectful as possible,” Moore said. “Don’t allow yourself to be baited when the other side does a provocative thing.

“Karen Lewis has been very provocative and at times rather insulting. It’s important in those circumstances not to allow yourself to get baited into it. There were instances where the mayor allowed himself to do that.

“Clearly they may have underestimated the degree of anger among the rank and file that Lewis was able to take advantage of.”

Collaboration over confrontation is not the only lesson for Emanuel, who appeared to give a lot more than the union did. Following are the other major lessons:

MESSAGE CONTROL: For a politician who fashions himself as a maestro of message, Emanuel didn’t do so hot during his first major crisis.

There were massive rallies of red-shirted teachers during the strike. But where were the rallies of angry and inconvenienced parents demanding a settlement before the strike or non-stop negotiations to end it after the walkout started?

If Emanuel is as disciplined as he claims to be at controlling the message, who leaked the damaging story about Jean-Claude Brizard being on his way? The story left the schools CEO mortally wounded before the strike.

Who planted the story about up to 120 school closings that had the potential to sabotage negotiations because those consolidations could result in thousands of teacher layoffs, increasing class size and underscoring the need for a teacher recall policy that gives laid-off teachers a second chance?

Emanuel branded the walkout an unnecessary “strike of choice” and surrounded himself with principals who demanded the right to choose their own teaching teams. But after that, he appeared to be out-maneuvered in the all-important public relations war.

“Public opinion was with the teachers. Not nationally, but locally. They just seemed to have momentum on their side,” Meeks said.

Another source added, “They should have re-tooled their public relations effort to at least go on the attack against the strike. It was all teachers. They weren’t able to rally support from any corner really. Who came out against the strike — what group of people? A few principals? Rahm didn’t grab the day. It ended, only because he caved in.”

POLITICAL TIMING. With the presidential election less than two months away, the timing of a teachers strike in President Barack Obama’s adopted hometown was clearly a political liability.

Emanuel should have understood the extent to which his role as former White House chief of staff and one of Obama’s chief fund-raisers would make him and Chicago a target for negative publicity that pretty much wiped out the positive exposure the city got during the NATO summit.

He should have anticipated the significance of the Chicago teachers strike on the national education reform movement and as the next test of organized labor’s strength after the bitter battle in Wisconsin.

“You can’t go from [White House] chief of staff to mayor without repercussions,” one veteran politician said, speculating that the White House may have pressured Emanuel to end the strike.

“He put himself in the limelight and made himself a huge target — and the teachers took advantage of it and made him the boogeyman. The presidential election is coming up. They called a strike and he caved. Now, he’s paying them money he doesn’t have.”

MORE FLIES WITH HONEY: When CTU President Karen Lewis dared to raise the issue of sweltering schools, Emanuel responded with trademark sarcasm.

“Everything here is down to two final issues, and it’s not air conditioning, OK,” an agitated Emanuel told reporters during a podium-pounding appearance at a Gage Park church.

“It’s 71 degrees outside. We don’t go on strike for air conditioning.”

Instead of cavalierly dismissing the entirely legitimate complaint, Emanuel could have launched a fund-raising campaign for school air-conditioners or asked the same education reformers bankrolling commercials against the teachers to pony up for it. That would have gone a long way toward improving goodwill with teachers who despise and distrust the mayor.

DON’T UNDERESTIMATE YOUR OPPONENT: Emanuel met his match in Lewis and underestimated her strength.

By allegedly using the F-word during a private meeting with Lewis last year and attempting to run roughshod over her by raising the strike threshold and muscling through the longer day, Emanuel turned the CTU president into a folk hero with the guts to fight City Hall.

By turning himself into the bad guy, Emanuel inadvertently helped Lewis garner a 90 percent strike vote that would have been unthinkable otherwise.

“Some women may cower when someone like him tells them to F-off. But he misread Karen Lewis. If he thought she’d back down and make her knees weak, he was mistaken,” one politician said.

An Emanuel confidante said it’s now clear that Lewis has “equally aggressive tendencies as our mayor.”

DON’T PLAY HIDE THE BALL: All week long, Emanuel has danced around the elephant in the room: how he will pay for the 16 percent pay raise over four years if the teachers union’s House of Delegates ratifies the tentative agreement. That has fueled speculation about the school closings and about pension reforms that teachers and other public employees have not yet agreed to.

Because the mayor chose to hide the ball, instead of being honest about the price that must be paid, a damaging strike will be followed by another round of bad news about the cuts needed to pay for the new contract.

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