Chicago teachers struck today, closing classrooms for about 400,000 students and prompting Mayor Rahm Emanuel to stop raising money for President Barack Obama’s re-election so he may devote time to settling the city’s first walkout in 25 years.
Months of tension erupted into open hostility last night when Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, called the work stoppage in the nation’s third-largest district. The teachers’ contract expired in June, and negotiations broke down over health benefits and job security. About 5 p.m., thousands of strike supporters gathered at school headquarters in the Loop business district waving placards and chanting; talks with the union, which represents 26,000 teachers and other workers, continued.
“Don’t take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me,” Emanuel said at a church providing child care. Children stood behind him, while strikers in red T-shirts chanted outside. One held a sign picturing the mayor with horns.
The strike leaves Emanuel, a 52-year-old former chief of staff to Obama who is aiding groups advancing his re-election, caught amid conflicting interests.
Unions have been among the strongest supporters of Democrats nationwide, and are crucial to Obama’s prospects. At the same time, some of Emanuel’s wealthiest supporters have pushed for changes to the city’s education system. They include Penny Pritzker, a Board of Education member who is part of a Chicago real-estate dynasty, and Bruce Rauner, who is chairman of GTCR Rauner LLC, which manages equity investments.
Emanuel is putting his money-raising super-PAC activities on hold and didn’t attend a scheduled appearance at a U.S. House Majority political action committee event today.
“The mayor’s first priority is the residents of the city of Chicago,” Thomas Bowen, director of Emanuel’s own political action committee, said in a statement. “He is committed to re-electing the president, but he must focus on his job as mayor right now.”
Emanuel, who didn’t participate directly in contract negotiations, called the walkout “unnecessary, avoidable and wrong,” and “a strike by choice.”
While the walkout provides the latest evidence of friction between public-sector unions and state and local governments, this strike occurs in one of the most Democratic cities in the nation and represents a major challenge for Emanuel, who took office in May 2011 casting himself as a nonideological problem-solver.
“If it isn’t settled soon, Rahm looks like he’s not as competent as the Chicago mayoral tradition requires,” said Dick Simpson, a former alderman who is a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “If this becomes divisive enough, it could become a problem for all the unions, not just the teachers.”
Less than 12 hours into the strike, the walkout became an issue in the presidential campaign when Republican nominee Mitt Romney criticized the union in Obama’s home state.
“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,” Romney said in an e-mailed statement.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters that the president’s main concern “is for the students and families” and that “we hope that both sides are able to come together and settle this quickly.”
The president is a former community organizer in the city and represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate.
Emanuel delivered on a campaign pledge to lengthen the school day and year, saying more class time would improve student performance. He also stripped teachers of a negotiated 4 percent pay raise, prompting Lewis to call him a bully.
Teachers originally sought a 29 percent raise over 24 months while the board proposed 2 percent annual increases under a four-year contract. Emanuel said the board boosted the offer to 16 percent over four years. Emanuel controls the operation of the district, which faces a deficit of about $700 million.
Today, parents were forced to cope with the strike’s repercussions, trying to arrange care for their children before they headed to work.
“It’s really chaotic,” said El Chan, an information-technology manager at an investment bank and the mother of two. “Both of us are working, I have no relatives, nobody I can turn to in town.”
“It’s hard to understand why they can’t work it out,” Chan said. “We love these teachers but, personally, we cannot risk our jobs either.”
Parents joined teachers on the picket line at Ray Elementary School in the Hyde Park neighborhood, a block from the private University of Chicago Lab Schools that Emanuel’s children attend.
“Anyone who knows teachers in Chicago public schools knows they’ve been under-resourced and disrespected for years,” said Michael McIntyre, 54, whose 16-year-old son attends Kenwood Academy, the public high school in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood. “It’s a horror show.”
He criticized the administration’s focus on exams.
“The only plan is to give students more and more standardized tests,” said McIntyre, who is chairman of the international studies department at DePaul University. “It’s like trying to make a calf grow by weighing it enough.”
At Stephen F. Gale Elementary Community Academy in East Rogers Park on the far North Side, about 50 teachers and supporters marched at the gate. Divisions took shape.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Amy Diaz, 29, as the picketers shouted.
Aretta Brown watched with her 5-year-old son, Michael, and 6-year-old daughter, Loretta.
“Rahm Emanuel is wrong,” she said. “He’s just wrong. He should give the teachers more money. We don’t want our kids in the street selling drugs and stuff.”
Emanuel has been on a collision course with Lewis and the union. The mayor repeatedly said that the school day and academic year were too brief and that children were shortchanged. He obtained legislative approval of a longer day.
Negotiators had been at the bargaining table since November.
Simpson, the former alderman, said there is a limited amount of time to settle the strike before positions harden.
“If it isn’t settled in a day or so, it could well turn ugly,” he said.