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Teachers rally; Lewis calls Emanuel ‘liar and bully’

The Labor Day rally Daley PlazMonday Sept. 3 2012 moved City Hall. |  Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

The Labor Day rally at Daley Plaza Monday, Sept. 3, 2012, moved to City Hall. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 5, 2012 6:14AM

Tactically, it was a risk to hold a Labor Day rally in the Loop, where there was no audience of office workers to influence and the targeted decision makers were absent.

But with a potential teachers strike approaching, the Chicago Teachers Union and its friends among public employee unions put on an impressive show of strength Monday, drawing thousands of red-shirted supporters to a Daley Plaza rally that turned into a protest march around City Hall and outside the Clark Street headquarters of the Chicago Public Schools.

With a fervor reminiscent of the Occupy Chicago marches, the teachers chanted labor slogans, waved placards and were fired up by several speakers, including CTU President Karen Lewis, who brought the crowd to a roar when she called Mayor Rahm Emanuel “a liar and a bully.”

Thousands of teachers and public workers attended the speeches in the Loop plaza, with many wearing red shirts in support of the teachers. After the rally, the crowd moved across Clark Street to march around the City Hall-County Building, then headed south on Clark to the CPS offices.

The crowd in the plaza appeared to be at least 10,000 people. The teachers union said 18,000 people showed up. Police blocked off traffic in the otherwise lightly populated Loop as the orderly protest briefly took over the streets.

Teachers in the crowd said the school system is treating them with disrespect and, in its drive to cut expenses, refuses to spend on needed facilities such as libraries and lunchrooms. “All the parents have told me that they support a strike. They realize it’s about the kids,” said Tiera Robinson, who teaches preschool special education at Hughes Elementary School.

“The news media makes it out that it’s just about salary,” said teacher Mike McCormick. “But really we are fighting for public education and strong neighborhoods.”

Asked about parents or taxpayers who might oppose a strike, McCormick replied, “It’s really the only action we have to advocate for the type of education that all students in Chicago deserve.”

The rally, which lasted more than two hours, came a week before more than 26,000 teachers and other school workers could hit the street, disrupting what would be just the second week of school for hundreds of thousands of Chicago public schoolchildren.

“The commitment to the children of the City of Chicago is in our hearts, in our minds,” Lewis told the cheering crowd. “It’s in the work we do.”

Lewis called the ongoing negotiations “a fight for the very soul of public education — not only in Chicago, but everywhere.”

Lewis at one point lit into Emanuel, saying: “He’s a liar and a bully.” She accused the mayor of advocating that money not be spent on the lowest-scoring 25 percent of students, and then denying saying so.

The union leader has said before that Emanuel, before he was sworn in last year, made comments about the lowest 25 percent of students being unworthy of educational support. Emanuel has denied making the comment.

On Monday, the mayor tried his best to remain above the fray.

“On the name-calling, this is not about Rahm Emanuel or Karen Lewis,” said Emanuel spokeswoman Sarah Hamilton. “It’s about the kids of the city of Chicago and ensuring they have a full school day and year.”

As for the teacher talks, Hamilton said, “They’re making progress. They met all weekend. They have meetings scheduled all week. The right people are at the table to reach an agreement that will keep our kids in school learning and that is fair to the teachers.”

Lewis also charged that public workers are being made scapegoats for social problems and that Emanuel downplays progress in the schools. Last year, “the graduation rate soared. The test scores soared, and where is the story about that from that office?” Lewis said, pointing in City Hall’s direction.

Other public employee unions, and a couple in the private sector, lent visible support. Large groups came from AFSCME Council 31, Service Employees International Union Local 1 and the unions for Chicago Police and firefighters.

CTU Vice President Jesse Sharkey said Monday a decision to push back the strike date at Wednesday’s meeting was highly unlikely, given that negotiators over the weekend had been focusing on “clearing the underbrush’’ and not attacking the main issues.

“Deadlines are important. We don’t want to drag this thing out,’’ Sharkey said. “Having said that, you can never say never.’’

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard on Monday would only say that “people are working hard to come to a resolution” but would not otherwise comment on contract talks or the system’s contingency plans.

Brizard said he was “happy’’ schools were opening Tuesday to the long-awaited systemwide longer day, and had seen many positive signs in schools in the last few days.

Many academic indicators are pointed upward, so “we can’t afford to have a single day missed,’’ Brizard said. ‘My only hope is that teachers get to continue to teach and don’t have their work stopped.’’

Ald. Carrie Austin (34th), speaking in Charlotte, N.C., where she is attending the Democratic National Convention, called a strike “inevitable.” And the powerful alderman, chairwoman of the City Council’s Budget Committee, laid the blame squarely on Lewis.

“They’ve already decided this is what they’re going to do. I think they want to” strike, Austin said after an Illinois delegation breakfast hosted by the Chicago Federation of Labor.

“Karen Lewis, their president, says they want to. [She’s essentially saying], ‘I’m gonna show you.’ That’s what she projects. . . . They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to negotiate. Not them — her. I don’t believe she wants to talk. That’s unfair to our children because education has to be more important than you getting an additional two percent.”

Austin advised parents whose children attend Chicago Public Schools to make alternative plans for their kids.

“If you allow your child to fall behind because of the strike, it’s your responsibility also,” Austin said.

Contributing: Rosalind Rossi

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