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Analysis: Teachers strike leaves Emanuel between a rock and a hard place

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked with reporters about teacher strike visited with students MaranthChurch 3542 W. 59th St. 'safe haven' site.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked with reporters about the teacher strike and visited with students at Marantha Church, 3542 W. 59th St., a "safe haven" site. He was joined by Pastor Ryan Johnson. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 12, 2012 6:10AM



Chicago’s first teachers strike in 25 years has put Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a political trick bag.

He needs to make the walkout a short one or risk permanent damage to Chicago’s reputation as a business center and to the reputation he has carefully crafted as mayor of a city on the come finally confronting its formidable challenges.

But he can’t step in, as Chicago mayors often do during labor strife, because there is so much bad blood between himself and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis.

He needs to appease a CTU he has alienated by his strong-arm tactics. But he cannot afford to cave after criticizing his predecessor for doing just that, nor does Emanuel have the money to buy labor peace after draining the last penny of CPS reserves with a $1 billion shortfall in next year’s school budget.

That’s the situation that confronts the former White House chief of staff after Day One of a strike that everybody saw coming but nobody could quite figure out how to avoid.

No wonder Chicago’s rookie mayor sounded somewhat exasperated when asked whether the teachers strike was directed at him politically.

“Don’t take it out on the kids of the city of Chicago if you’ve got a problem with me. That’s wrong. Our kids deserve better,” he said.

“Second of all, we’ve worked through a whole host of issues. We’re down to two issues and neither the teacher evaluations or the quote, unquote recall [of teachers laid off from shuttered or turnaround schools] have to do with me. They have to do with the quality of our teachers in the classroom.”

Pressed on whether the strike that led the national news Monday was a test of his leadership, the normally cool Emanuel pounded the podium for emphasis a record number of times.

“The real test that should matter — which is why I want the negotiators to stay at the table — is the test these kids take in third grade on reading and writing and math [and] the test they take at sixth grade on whether they’re at international levels,” Emanuel said, pointing to kids standing behind him at a Gage Park church.

“It’s not my test I’m interested in. ... Don’t worry about the test of my leadership. That gets tested every day. There’s not a day that isn’t a challenge.”

But the union is clearly hoping to test the mayor. Teachers picketed outside the church where Emanuel spoke. And later they staged a noisy demonstration at City Hall.

Emanuel reiterated his late-night claim that Lewis had called an unnecessary “strike of choice” and urged both sides to “stay at the table and finish it for our children.”

But he refused to bend on the issues he described as the two major roadblocks: teacher evaluations and allowing principals to retain the right to choose their teaching team.

“If we’re gonna hold our local principals in the school accountable for getting the results we need, they need to pick the best qualified,” Emanuel said.

“The direction and the dictation should not come out of downtown … That’s just not right. ... I don’t believe I should pick ’em. I don’t believe the CPS leadership should pick ’em. And I don’t believe the CTU leadership should pick ’em.”

At the risk of further alienating teachers, Emanuel charged that, “We haven’t made any changes in 40 years in this profession.” And he refused to rule out the possibility of filing an unfair labor practices complaint aimed at ending the strike even before there’s a settlement.

The mayor also scoffed at union claims that the new teacher evaluation process, which the union claims puts too much weight on student test scores, could cost 6,000 teachers their jobs.

“I’m more optimistic that the teachers will pass. I have a bigger confidence in the quality of our teachers than they do, which is a little strange,” he said.

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) noted that Emanuel has a history of talking tough, then “backing down part-way,” as he did on NATO summit protest rules, library cutbacks and on his signature plan for a longer school day.

“I would expect the same thing to happen this time. If it doesn’t, the story line of the effective CEO or boss running the city is gonna be undercut,” said Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

To illustrate the political perils of a protracted strike, Simpson pointed to the “historic example” of Jane Byrne and Chicago firefighters in 1980.

“When Jane Byrne caused the firefighters strike and fought it, she lost the support of labor unions, which is one of the many reasons she lost the next election. It pulled apart the traditional Democratic coalition that governs the city,” Simpson said.

“Rahm didn’t have those unions the first time, and he didn’t need them. But, he may need them in future elections because money may not be enough to control the election, particularly under new state fund-raising rules and the $5,000 limit on contributions from PAC’s or individuals. You can’t run the city with just business support. You need unions and the public.”

A City Hall insider, who asked to remain anonymous, noted that the teachers strike provides the first but not the only test of Emanuel’s labor strength.

“You’ve got police. You’ve got fire. Those [negotiations] aren’t going so well, either. Could all three labor groups be wrong?” the insider said.

Beyond the impact on local politics, there are national implications for Emanuel, who quit his role as an Obama campaign co-chair last week to fund-raise for the Obama-sanctioned SuperPAC because of massive amounts being raised by Republican groups backing Mitt Romney.

Hours before landing in Chicago for a fund-raiser in north suburban Lake Forest, Romney weighed in with a statement that appeared to side with Emanuel against the teachers.

“I am disappointed by the decision by the Chicago Teachers Union to turn its back on not only a city negotiating in good faith, but also the hundreds of thousands of children relying on the city’s public schools to provide them a safe place to receive a strong education,” Romney said.

“Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet. President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his vice president last year to assure the nation’s largest teachers union that, ‘You should have no doubt about my affection for you and the President’s commitment to you.’ I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools.”

As Obama hoped for a quick resolution to the Chicago strike and avoided taking sides, Emanuel refused to take the political bait.

“While I appreciate Mitt Romney’s statement on behalf of the kids and the parents of Chicago, if he wants to help, he can then determine that, when it comes to his tax cut, he will never cut the Department of Education … .and he will make sure there will never be a cut in any education [program] to pay for his tax cuts for the less fortunate,” Emanuel said.

“While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we’re doing here. I don’t really give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass … the President. The President … has done one of the most important things with Race to the Top to make sure we have accountability in our system and the best qualified teachers in our schools — and that’s exactly what we’re trying to do here.”

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