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Winners and losers in teachers’ strike — Rahm Emanuel is both

Chicago Teachers Uni(CTU) president Karen Lewis holds press conference after CTU delegates voted end their strike. (Phoby Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) president Karen Lewis holds a press conference after CTU delegates voted to end their strike. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

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Updated: October 20, 2012 6:26AM

Chicago’s 350,000 public school students and their parents are the obvious winners now that the teachers strike is over.

Students will be back in the classroom with teachers who feel newly-energized and appreciated. Their parents can go to work without scrambling to make alternative arrangements or worrying about their kids’ safety.

But, Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years has also produced some not-so-obvious winners and losers that could shape the political, education and collective bargaining landscape for years to come.

Here’s the rundown:


CHICAGO TEACHERS UNION AND ITS PRESIDENT KAREN LEWIS: Sunday’s stunning non-vote by the House of Delegates was a definite hiccup that made Lewis look temporarily weak and unable to deliver the deal to which she had agreed. It also risked public opinion that, for the most part, appeared to be with the teachers.

But in the end, Lewis and the CTU were big winners.

She stood toe-to-toe with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, garnered a 90 percent strike authorization vote fueled by rank-and-file anger toward the mayor’s strong-arm tactics and made Emanuel compromise more on everything from teacher evaluation and re-hiring to merit pay and step-and-lane salary increases for seniority and additional education.

“Karen comes through this significantly strengthened as a union leader. ... She will be a very formidable voice around education policy in the city and in the state as a result of this process,” said Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

“They pulverized Karen Lewis, got her on the ground, but they didn’t count on the fact that she would be bigger than life when she got back up,” said one labor leader, referring to the state legislation that raised the strike threshold.

DAVID VITALE, SCHOOL BOARD PRESIDENT: Vitale’s role as former chairman of the Academy for Urban School Leadership has fueled conflict of interest allegations because of AUSL’s role in managing teacher training academies and turning around failing schools. But, the former Board of Trade CEO clearly salvaged negotiations that appeared to be going nowhere.

“We had no light at the end of the tunnel until he showed up. …Why the hell wasn’t he there earlier?” Bruno said.

“He does appear to have a way to communicate the city’s position and still synthesize that he’s legitimately listening to the teachers’ arguments. That’s got to be acknowledged.”

OTHER UNIONS: The teachers’ strike provided the first real crisis on Emanuel’s watch, but it’s not the only upcoming test of the mayor’s labor strength. Contracts with Chicago police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other unionized employees have also expired, and those unions could be emboldened by the teachers’ success in standing up to the mayor. Although state law prohibits police officers and firefighters from striking, those unions still have something to gain from the teachers’ crusade.

CIRCUIT JUDGE PETER FLYNN : Now that the House of Delegates has called off the strike, Flynn is off the hook. He doesn’t have to rule on the mayor’s request to order the teachers back to work and risk alienating a formidable political force that could target him in a Nov. 6 retention vote.

EMANUEL: The mayor comes out of this with his signature education initiatives in tact. He preserved the longer school day and school year. He gets a modified teacher evaluation system. And he preserved the right for principals to pick their own teaching teams while still giving teachers displaced by turn-arounds and school closings a second chance. After spending a week being portrayed as the bad guy, Emanuel also reclaimed some of the political advantage he lost to the teachers by attempting to convince a judge to order the teachers back to work. By that time, public sentiment was starting to turn against the teachers.

“Some would argue that the mayor forced the issue and that’s why they’re going back to school,” said Ald. George Cardenas (12th), parent of two CPS students, 11 and 6.. “Give the mayor credit for taking the bold step of seeking the injunction, potentially angering the teachers.”


OUTSIDE EDUCATION REFORM GROUPS ALIGNED WITH EMANUEL: Groups such as Stand for Children established a beach-head in Chicago and bankrolled a costly campaign that blanketed the radio and television airwaves with commercials blasting the teachers. But in the end, they did not succeed nearly as much as they had hoped to in pushing their education reform agenda.

EMANUEL: There’s simply no denying the fact that the mayor’s missteps and heavy-handed tactics set the stage for the strike and turned Lewis into a folk-hero. Not only did he raise the strike threshold to a level he thought Lewis would never be able to achieve. He threw a four-letter word at her, cancelled a previously-negotiated, four percent pay raise and used cash bounties to entice local schools to immediately implement his longer school day. And once the strike began, he appeared to lose the all-important public relations war — until Sunday’s no-decision by the House of Delegates. The strike dominated national headlines for more than a week and was a political embarrassment for Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff now serving as President Barack Obama’s chief fund-raiser. The negative headlines about Chicago virtually negated the positive exposure the city got during the NATO summit.

CHICAGO PROPERTY OWNERS: By agreeing to teacher pay raises over and above a school budget that drained every last penny of reserves, the Chicago Board of Education will have no choice but to approve four years of up-to-the-limit property tax increases. The $5.7 billion budget approved by Emanuel’s handpicked school board already includes a $41 million property tax increase. It earmarked two percent pay raises for teachers, but that $40 million was subsequently diverted to hire 477 teachers needed to staff Emanuel’s longer school day so elementary school teachers don’t have to work a minute longer.

UNDER-PERFORMING AND UNDER-UTILIZED NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS AND THE ALDERMEN WHO REPRESENT THOSE AREAS: Dozens of schools, if not more than 100, will have to be closed to help pay for the new teachers contract, which is why the CTU made such an issue of the recall policy that gives displaced teaches a second chance.

The school closings are certain to stir political controversy, as they always do, because of fears that students forced to travel further to school will be placed in danger by having to cross turf claimed by rival gangs. But, there is simply no other choice. School closings have slowed to a trickle in recent years while Chicago suffered population losses. It’s time to face the music.

SCHOOLS CEO JEAN-CLAUDE BRIZARD: He not only angered the mayor by going on vacation in the run-up to the strike. He was mortally wounded by a Chicago Tribune story that claimed he was on his way out. Brizard was invisible during contract negotiations, insisting that his job was to keep the nation’s third-largest school system running. Once the strike is over, City Hall insists that it will be “J.C.’s show once again.” But, Brizard has emerged from the crisis so politically-weakened, you’ve got to wonder how he will re-claim the authority he needs to function.

The bottom line for the chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus is that both sides can claim victory, as in most labor confrontations that come to an end.

“The teachers could have declared [total] victory if it had ended last Friday. But, I don’t necessarily think they can claim that now. Public sentiment and momentum started to swing toward the [Emanuel] administration,” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), who has two children in Chicago Public Schools.

“Rahm has shown that, ‘It wasn’t just me. We came to a deal. Vitale chased Karen Lewis around trying to get them to come to the table. And, even when they worked out a deal, it wasn’t a deal.’ So, the administration can claim it was vindicated. The strike wasn’t over after it appeared teachers got a really good deal.”

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