Tensions are running high in Chicago as the teachers union voted overwhelmingly to support a strike if contract negotiations with the school board and Mayor Rahm Emanuel continue to leave the two sides far from a settlement.
The teachers union contract battles have become as common as traffic and pollution in the nation’s big city school districts, but matters have become even more contentious in recent years as budget shortfalls have forced school systems to try to get more work from teachers for less money. In Chicago, Mayor Emanuel—President Obama’s former chief of staff—is trying to convince the teachers to go along with a lengthening of the school day at the same time as he revoked a 4 percent pay raise that the teachers had already gotten. He is also pushing for more charter schools, which teachers unions across the country traditionally oppose because they take money out of the traditional schools.
Emanuel (pictured above with teachers union president Karen Lewis) was embarrassed when 90 percent of the teachers (the union has 24,000 members) voted to accept a strike if one is deemed necessary by union leadership—after Emanuel publicly supported a new state law that required 75 percent of the union membership vote in favor of a strike for it to be legal, and those members who didn’t vote would be considered “no” votes. Angered by the law and the mayor’s support, many schools reported 100 percent participation in the vote, far higher than usual.
But most observers expect the two sides to come to an agreement before the new school year begins. Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, pointed out to NPR that the last thing Emanuel wants before the re-election vote on his former boss in the White House is an embarrassing strike in the president’s hometown, which is surrounded by important battleground states.