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Analysis: Emanuel learning a lesson from teachers in union contract flap

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo. |  Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File photo. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: August 19, 2012 6:20AM



For a political chess player who never makes a move without thinking three moves ahead, Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks more like a high school clubber than a grand master when it comes to the teachers contract.

Emanuel pushed for a change in state law that raised the strike authorization threshold to 75 percent, a benchmark so high, at least one education advocate with ties to the mayor predicted that it could never be met.

Instead, the Chicago Teachers Union roared passed that benchmark, fueled by their anger against a mayor who had already stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and tried to muscle through a longer school day immediately.

That same state law championed by Emanuel set up a fact-finding process that has now blown up in the mayor’s face.

For months, Emanuel and his handpicked school team have been pinning their hopes on the fact-finders report. Education reform groups aligned with Emanuel even went so far as to bankroll radio commercials urging teachers to wait for the report before authorizing a strike.

Now, the fact finder has returned with a scathing report that not only recommends a first-year 18.2 percent pay hike the Chicago Public Schools can ill afford. It pins the blame for the stalemate squarely on Emanuel and demands that the mayor choose between fiscal reality and his signature push for a longer school day and school year.

“He’s really painted himself into a corner,” said Linda Lenz, publisher of catalyst Chicago, a news organization that tracks school reform.

“By pushing through the higher requirement for strike authorization — and adding some combative rhetoric — it energized the Chicago Teachers Union and strengthened them. We’ve all wondered how you would pay for a longer school day. But a surprise to me was the fact finder coming out for huge raises.”

Although Emanuel fashions himself as a master strategist who out-foxes opponents, Lenz noted that working with schools is “new to the mayor” and he’s “made some miscalculations, perhaps out of not knowing the lay of the land” at Chicago Public Schools.

“Everybody had complained we had too short a day. Pushing for a longer day certainly made sense. But, there seems to have been a failure to calculate what it would take to get that done — both in terms of resources and grass-roots support from the community and from teachers,” Lenz said.

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago, blamed, what he called the “100 days strategy” for Emanuel’s political dilemma.

“Presidents and chief executives expect to get major things through during the honeymoon period when they have the votes and before things start to stall. He was trying to get what he could when he had the support to be able to do it,” Simpson said.

“He should have phased the longer day in instead of trying for it at one time. Now, he’s gonna have to back-track. I think it will end with Emanuel backing down part-way, just like he did with NATO [protest rules] and library hours.”

On Tuesday, the mayor showed no signs of backing down.

He dismissed the fact-finders report as unaffordable and “not tethered to reality” and stood firm behind his signature push for a longer school day and year.

“When you have the shortest day and the shortest year of any major city, you shortchange your children. I believe everybody should be properly compensated but I don’t believe you have a system that doesn’t give our kids what they need because this is their future,” the mayor said.

After seemingly pinning all his hopes on the arbitrator’s report, Emanuel all but dismissed it and said the stalemate would be resolved at the bargaining table, paving the way for an on time opening of Chicago public schools.

The mayor would not say how he plans to compensate teachers for the extra work he wants them to perform. He has already signed off on a budget that authorized a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and drains every last penny of school reserves to pay for it.

“Thank you for the report. CPS and CTU are going to do the hard work of coming to an agreement. The report, at 35 percent over three years, is not tethered to reality,” Emanuel said of the fact finder.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis responded to the mayor’s hard-line by saying that Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years can be avoided, but only if Emanuel bends.

“There are other ways to achieve these goals by looking at staffing — by looking at a variety of things other than lengthening the day to an arbitrary length he picked,” said Lewis, whose bitter feud with the mayor has, at times, gotten personal.

“If he’s not willing to make any compromises, then he can’t have what he wants, now can he? You can’t have it two ways. This is up to him. We’re gonna do our part. There are a variety of ways to look at this problem and solve the problem. We will try and solve the problem. ”

Asked point-blank whether there would be a teachers strike, Lewis said, “That will depend on the mayor. He doesn’t want a strike. But the question is, what will he do to avoid it? That’s the question that needs to be asked of him — not me. Our members have already spoken on the issue. ”

Lewis said she’s sick and tired of hearing Emanuel say that Chicago Public Schools have the shortest school day and school year in the nation, when it’s simply not true.

“We do not have the shortest day, yet he keeps saying it, and he keeps repeating it. We have the data to show it’s not true — especially not in high school,” she said.

“You say the same thing over and over again. That’s what politicians do. They sing one note and sing it over and over again. The good news is the educators are at the table — not the politicians.”

Just because Emanuel drew a line in the sand Tuesday on the longer school day and year doesn’t mean he won’t end up backing off. He’s already blinked once.

Earlier this year, he shaved 30 minutes off the longer school day for elementary schools and said the 7-1/2-hour day in high schools would be confined to four-days-a-week. On the fifth day, students will be dismissed 75 minutes early to give teachers more preparation time.

The surprise compromise followed a burgeoning revolt by aldermen and the parents they represent concerned the 7-1/2-hour day would leave young kids exhausted and older kids unable to participate in after-school and extra-curricular activities.

“We’re focused on trying to have a better day for children. It’s not quantity. It’s quality. I wish the mayor would understand that, but he doesn’t,” Lewis said.



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