Chicago Teachers Union Winning? What Rahm Emanuel is Up Against

The head of the Chicago Teachers Union is the Chicago mayor’s opposite. But as the strike drags on, the defiant Karen Lewis is winning. James Warren on what Emanuel is up against.

09.12.12 2:17 PM ET

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, is Rahm Emanuel’s Mitch McConnell. She wants him out. To understand a somewhat baffling walkout that has gripped the city, it helps to perceive the personal.

The mayor is triathlon fit, famously disciplined and generally as serious as a heart attack. Lewis is overweight, scattered in her ways and a wisecracking former chemistry teacher and failed stand-up comic. But she’s galvanized a rank-and-file and, for the moment, has the upper hand.

History would suggest that if the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years endures another several days, the clear popular support now had by the union, according to polling, will dissipate. The curiosity of the strike will morph into parental frustration. The specifics of the bargaining will take a back seat to childcare complexity.

“If this goes on another day or so, Karen has problems,” said a veteran union-side lawyer who has worked with her. “People are going to start getting pissed and they’ll probably be more pissed at the union.”

But there is possible peril for Emanuel, if not much real collateral damage for President Obama, his former boss whom McConnell long ago set as a target. The mayor’s politically potent aura of decisiveness and competence might take a hit, raising a few doubts, creating some resentments that linger if he runs for re-election in three years, perhaps galvanizing a group like organized labor to staunchly back an alternative.

And he has himself partly to blame.  That’s largely due to his many suggestions (arguably correct) that his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, caved to the teachers union, the system was a mess and that students get “the shaft.” Especially for teachers who’ve been around since the mid-1990s and lived through multiple reform movements, Emanuel’s aggressive ways confronted the union’s de facto reform fatigue and self-image of being scapegoats.

Members watched as Rahm played a key role in the passage of new state legislation partly aimed at weakening their union, though apparently misjudging its impact on bargaining a new contract. They sat back as he pushed to lengthen one of the nation’s shortest school days, initially luring a few schools to do so by offering bonuses for faculty well before the longer day was instituted system wide last month. He pushed for much-needed standards to assess teacher performance in a manner that struck many as confrontational. They saw a deficit-plagued school board eliminate a 4 percent pay hike slated for the past year.

It was tough and nervy and emblematic of those Democratic mayors taking on a longtime ally, unions, at a time of budgetary disarray and persistently mediocre public school performance. But while having operated at the highest levels of American politics and government for two decades, Emanuel had by and large done so as a staffer (and three terms as a congressman), most recently as the president’s chief of staff.

Now he is the boss and the face of policy, with every word parsed, any missteps taking on greater personal consequence.

He seems to have underestimated Lewis, and not without reason, as one was reminded last year when video was leaked of a bizarre address she gave to a labor gathering in Seattle. An initial two-minute snippet of the 35-minute monologue, a YouTube posting by the Education Action Group, a conservative organization, found her outright mocking Arne Duncan, the education secretary, by affecting a lisp and discussing her own Dartmouth College drug use.

Scrutiny of the whole speech was riveting for mostly the wrong reasons. She ambled about a stage, taking on different personas, including a defensive Emanuel; derided two very accomplished members of the Chicago Schools Board; bashed her union predecessor; and belittled free-market economic doctrine. It was all self-absorbed, shabby and suggestive of a leader about to take her troops over a cliff.

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But she and the union fooled many, including other unions, by largely unifying their members and showing impressive organization in making the case internally for solidarity and a potential workout. So far, she seems to be relishing the spotlight and has most members in tow even as she still comes off as a sloganeering militant from days yore--on Sunday night declaring that it’s unfair to use student test scores to in any way assess teachers, given conditions of poverty, violence and homeless many students confront.

It’s the sort of copout that Emanuel rightly seeks to correct. Teachers can obviously make a difference, regardless of their students’ awful environments.

He and Lewis, an insurgent who toppled an incumbent union leader, have had at least one nasty yelling match. Those familiar with the union’s internal dynamic underscore that she and her second-in-command simply dislike Emanuel and want to show him up as they push for contract changes they deem important.

By most standards, they seem to have achieved a huge amount already. Emanuel’s team has offered a four-year economic package that can be measured as amounting to a 16 percent increase the bankrupt system can’t afford; ditched a push for merit pay; and apparently also conceded substantially in an initial desire to eliminate or sharply curtail the automatic increases a teacher receives for advanced degrees and length of service.

Though Lewis asserted Tuesday that nearly four dozen matters remain unresolved--before telling a large union rally she had to soon return to the “silly part” of her day, the contract talks--the big ones are institution of a recall procedure for laid-off teachers and the role of student test scores in evaluating teachers.

The push for giving laid-off teachers first crack at subsequent openings is both an attempt to duplicate what the union once had, and that teachers elsewhere possess, and also a vivid clash with Emanuel’s desire to give principals far more hiring discretion. The evaluation issue is inherently difficult but one that both sides have worked on for quite a while without much rancor, though outside experts have raised doubts about their initial handiwork.

Emanuel has already opened the door on recall by an earlier agreement to let 477 previously laid-off teachers return to work. Taken together with what’s been offered by the city, it would seem an impressive union feat in an era of organized labor weakness.