"If you can't make it here," many Chicagoans have told me over the years, "you can't make it anywhere." That's why educators, politicians and labor organizers across the nation are keeping a close eye on the city's teachers strike.
For public workers' unions, Chicago is something of a last stand. If they can't win in this historically strong union town, it's hard to imagine unions winning anywhere.
With private-sector unions fading and flat on their backs, public-sector unions have grown. Few are more powerful than the teachers' unions in cities like Chicago, where past mayors generously handed out fat pensions and other benefits that didn't have to be paid out until some future date.
Now, guess what? The future is here. Times are tough. The ranks of retired public workers are growing. Budgets are shrinking and voters are impatient. Since the 2010 elections, NPR reports, Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee and Wisconsin have curbed or eliminated collective bargaining rights for teachers. Plus, layoffs have drained union membership.
That leaves today's unions with a choice: Collaborate and compromise on salary and work issues or stand tough. Chicago is a stand-tough town. Rahm Emanuel, aka "Rahmbo," the "Rahmfather," is a stand-tough mayor. And the stand-tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, is occasionally known to take even tougher stands than her parent union, the American Federation of Teachers.
With the nation's third largest public school system, (25,000-plus teachers and 402,000 students) Chicago's teachers strike has become a test battle for the future of public-sector unions — and it's happening right in President Barack Obama's hometown. That brought his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, among other conservative voices, chiming in to root for an unlikely hero, Democratic Mayor Emanuel, a former congressman and Obama's ex-chief of staff.
Obama is trying to stay out of it, which is not easy. Unions are crucial to the Democratic Party's base as a source of donations and get-out-the-vote help. And Rahmbo has been one of Obama's best fundraisers, as he was for President Bill Clinton and other prominent Democrats. A week before the strike, Emanuel stepped down from his honorary position with the Obama campaign to begin fundraising for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super PAC, only to be forced by the strike to suspend his fundraising.
The stickiest issues in the Chicago strike echo school reform debates and teacher contract disputes across the country: job security, longer school days, expanding charter schools and the tying of teacher pay to student test scores. It is Emanuel's bad fortune to come up against a particularly tough teachers union. It is the students' bad fortune that the union has not found Mayor Rahmbo to be a soft touch.
Besides, the city, like many others, is financially broke — deep in deficits. So is the state, which has one of the most underfunded state pension systems in the nation. That leaves Chicago Public Schools with little wiggle room. The district spent its financial reserves to close a $665 million deficit for the budget year that began in July, according to Reuters, and levied property taxes at the highest level allowed by law.
Timothy Knowles, head of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, got it right when he described the dispute as "New Democrats versus Old Labor." Democrats like Emanuel may sound a little more polite about it than Republicans like, say, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. But today's mayors and governors don't have the luxury they might once have had to cut sweetheart deals that come without measures to cut costs or tie pay and job security to performance in the classrooms.
Strikes are the most drastic weapon in a union's arsenal. It does not help the union's cause that the biggest news out of the strike's opening days is the scramble by parents to find alternative activities for the more than 350,000 children locked out of their classroom. Tell me again about how this action was necessary to help the kids?
"Never let a serious crisis go to waste," Emanuel famously said in his White House chief of staff days. Now he is trying to repair Chicago's financial and education crises that took decades to build. And if it can be done here, it can be done anywhere.
Clarence Page is a member of the Tribune's editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.