Teachers Strike in Chicago: Why Rahm Emanuel Could Hurt Obama in Election 2012

For the first time in a quarter-century and only about a week into the new school year, Chicago teachers are striking following the breakdown of talks between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the board of Chicago Public Schools. 

25,000 teachers and staff in the nation's third largest school district are picketing, affecting nearly 350,000 students. The district is keeping 144 schools designated as "Children First" locations open for four hours during which students will be able to eat breakfast and lunch and complete non-instructional activities under the supervision of non-union workers and other CPS employees. Additionally, 59 "Safe Haven" churches will be open for six hours and day camps are being offered by the Chicago Public Library system, the Chicago Park District, the YMCA, and other local groups. Despite these efforts, headaches likely await both parents and students making adjustments to their daily routine.

The union and the district have been negotiating new arrangements since November, but talks became more urgent last week. School board president David Vitale has said that the district has made over 20 offers to the union since Thursday. Talks are continuing today, but it remains uncertain when a deal will be reached. 

Compensation was a key sticking point early on, largely due to the district's failure to deliver an agreed upon 4% raise last year. The district blamed budget shortfalls, which are expected to continue and total a projected $3 billion over the next three years. However, after the district's latest offer of a 16% raise over four years, double the amount originally proposed according to Vitale, pay is likely to play a diminished role in negotiations. Health benefits and a new standardized test-utilizing teacher evaluation system which, according to the CTU, could eliminate 6,000 teachers in two years, remain major points of contention.

This is the second major round of negotiations between the Rahm Emanuel administration and the CTU this year. In July, the district struck a deal with the CTU to extend the school day for 90 minutes, an Emanuel campaign promise, in exchange for the rehiring of 477 laid-off teachers.

Beyond representing another challenge to an administration already plagued by continuing violence in the city's South Side, these local union struggles could also have an impact on this year's national elections: President Obama and other Democrats will need union support for fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts in the lead up to November. A rift between Emanuel backers in the Party and unions could spell trouble.