The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the Presidential Election

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 11, 2012

For those wondering why public school teachers in Chicago are striking, Andrew Coulson has the rundown:

. . . the average teacher’s salary is about $75,000(almost 50% above the citywide private sector average), public sector retirement benefits are so generous that Illinois owes $203 billion for this purpose that it simply doesn’t have, and the teachers’ union has decided that it will not go along with the district’s plan to make salaries depend partly on classroom performance.

As Coulson notes, school choice is very much needed in order to bring down education costs, while at the same time increasing school performance. Meanwhile, it is worth mentioning that the strike has wreaked havoc:

Around Chicago, parents said they were struggling to find places to send their children for some uncertain number of days or weeks or, as one worried parent offered unhappily, months. Some brought children to their workplaces, and others took days off. City officials opened 144 schools for half-days of games, movies, puzzles, basketball and meals with nonunion workers, but some parents expressed concern about the safety or value of those options, and others seemed uncomfortable with the prospect of crossing picket lines to enter.

“This was very bad timing,” said Karen Miles, who said she had to cancel work meetings on Monday to juggle her daughters. “I plan my day around their school,” she said, inside her daughters’ school — one of the contingency sites — on the city’s North Side, where one sign read, “Your kids deserve what Rahm’s kids get,” an allusion to the mayor’s children’s attendance at a private school.

“I don’t get paid,” Ms. Miles added, “if I don’t work.”

As Chris Cillizza writes, this strike is bad for President Obama:

* It’s Chicago: Yes, we know that President Obama has no role — either way — in the strike. But, that the strike is happening in Chicago, the town where President Obama made his political name doesn’t help him.  And that the current Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel, was Obama’s first presidential chief of staff isn’t much help either. Remember that Republicans are doing everything they can to link Obama to Chicago and Chicago-style politics — thinking that it will turn off independents in the middle of the country.  That the teachers strike will be at (or close to) the top of every evening news show until it ends allows Republicans a daily news peg to remind people that Obama is from the Windy City.

Labor, distracted: Organized labor has experienced a series of major setbacks over the past few years — from losing a Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) in 2010 to coming up well short against Gov. Scott Walker in the 2012 recall race.  Those losses make it very difficult for labor’s credibility to weather ANOTHER high profile defeat in Chicago. If labor loses this fight it may be a sort of death blow to its longstanding image as the big bully (in a good way) in politics. With stakes that high, the showdown in Chicago is going to be a top-of-the-mind issue for labor strategists and allies until it’s resolved. And that means that labor’s attention is divided, which isn’t a good thing for the Obama campaign who need unions’ full attention this fall.

Rahm, distracted: Less than a week ago, my colleague Peter Wallsten reported thatRahm was taking over the fundraising effort for Priorities USA Action, the leading Democratic super PAC that has struggled so far to come close to matching the financial might of its conservative rivals.  While we know Rahm is a gifted multi-tasker, it’s hard to imagine that with the biggest — and most consequential – fight of his mayorship now joined that he is going to find much time to court the massive donors the party needs to write massive checks as soon as possible.  If the strike gets itself resolved in short order, this likely won’t be a major issue but if it drags on, the political calendar starts to become Democrats’ enemy.  In order to make a difference, you need the money in the bank sooner rather than later so it can be effectively spent. (UPDATE: Emanuel suspended his fundraising activities for the super PAC to concentrate on the strike today.)

I think it is worth asking whether the president supports his former chief of staff and Chicago family, or whether he supports his union allies. Some enterprising journalist should ask that question, and should not be satisfied with answers stating that the president does not take a position in the strike. And if the president insists on not taking a position in the strike, some enterprising journalist should ask labor unions how the president’s silence makes them feel.

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