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National union head: Chicago teachers, Democrats need to find ‘common ground’

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard greets some football team before start first day school RoberClemente High School 1147 N.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard greets some of the football team before the start of the first day of school at Roberto Clemente High School, 1147 N. Western. Tuesday, September 4, 2012 | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 6, 2012 1:46PM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Days away from a possible teachers strike in Chicago, the head of a national teachers union told a group of Illinois delegates meeting at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday that “the teachers of Chicago feel deeply disrespected and deeply disenfranchised.”

National president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, raised the discord brewing between the Chicago Teachers Union and the city but never used the word “strike” and stopped short of calling on specific officials — including Mayor Rahm Emanuel — to appease teachers’ demands.

“We need to find common ground. We are Democrats, we are people who know how to build,” said Weingarten, who as president of the AFT represents more than 1 million members across the country. “The teachers of Chicago feel deeply disrespected and deeply disenfranchised and that’s what this struggle is about. Now I know the struggle can be settled and I know we can move forward, but we need to find common ground and as Democrats we have to deal with each other.”

Weingarten’s forceful statement on behalf of Chicago teachers put members of the Illinois delegation on the spot.

The threat of a Chicago teachers strike is the elephant in the room at delegation meetings. Everybody is aware of it and concerned about it. Nobody knows how to avert it.

And nobody wants to cross Emanuel, who is known for his long memory and take-no-prisoners politics.

Asked if they agree with Weingarten’s statement about Chicago teachers, some delegates tip-toed around the subject. Others paused before answering carefully.

“I’m hopeful that the leadership of CPS and the teachers union will successfully conclude their negotiations and there’ll be no strike,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. “It’s incumbent upon the adults to behave like adults and be sure that our kids do not have their educations interrupted.”

Pressed on whether she agrees that Chicago teachers feel “deeply disrespected” by the mayor, Preckwinkle paused for nearly a minute and coughed before answering.

“I’m a teacher by profession and it’s a profession I’m very proud of,” she said. “And I think it’s important that public officials be respectful of public workers and don’t go out of their way to denigrate them.”

Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) was not quite so timid. Asked whether she believes Emanuel has “deeply disrespected” Chicago teachers, Hairston said without hesitation, “Yes.”

Pressed to explain how, Hairston said, “The teachers work very, very hard. They work long hours. They give of themselves. They give of their own personal things. And to kind of be a little dismissive about the actual work they do [is a mistake]. It’s not just about nickels and dimes.”

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