CHICAGO (Reuters) - Thousands of striking Chicago teachers rallied on Saturday to keep the pressure on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to wrap up an agreement with their union to end a strike that has closed the nation's third largest school district for a week.
The rally brought labor leaders, community activists and thousands of striking teachers to Chicago's Union Park for one of the largest demonstrations against Emanuel's education reforms since the strike began on Monday.
"You have proven to the world that you're not going to take it anymore," Lorretta Johnson, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, told demonstrators the day after the two sides reached a tentative labor deal.
Led by Chicago Teachers Union president and former high school chemistry teacher Karen Lewis, 29,000 unionized teachers, counselors, nurses and other support staff staged their first strike in 25 years, leaving 350,000 Chicago students with no school this week.
Emanuel angered the Chicago teachers by trying to push through proposals to radically reform teacher performance evaluations and weaken job protection for teachers whose schools are closed or perform poorly academically.
He retreated from some of his proposed reforms, although details of what he has agreed to with the union have not been made public. Negotiators for the mayor and the union announced a tentative agreement on Friday that could lead to an end to the strike.
The confrontation has left many Democratic mayors and politicians supporting Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama. Other Democrats have sided with the unions, which are major financial supporters of the party and are needed to help Obama win re-election in November.
Emanuel denied on Saturday there had been any pressure from the White House to settle the strike.
"The short answer is no," Emanuel's spokeswoman, Sarah Hamilton, said. "There was no pressure, and no pressure would have worked, because they know that the mayor firmly believes that what we are doing to reform and improve our schools is the right thing."
The union is wary of Emanuel, who has been called a "bully" and a "liar" by Lewis.
Organizers hoped Saturday's rally would rival some of the huge demonstrations last year that protested the efforts of Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to curb the power of unions. The Wisconsin protests were unsuccessful, but drew tens of thousands of government workers, including teachers.
Activists and supporters from other unions joined the sea of strikers wearing red T-shirts at Saturday's rally.
"This is not just a Chicago struggle, this is a struggle for workers everywhere," civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said. "You've led a new struggle for courage."
'IT'S BEEN DRAINING'
If all goes well in the negotiations between the Chicago School Board and the union this weekend, Lewis said she would ask some 800 union activists on Sunday to suspend the strike and teachers would return to classrooms on Monday morning.
Lewis told reporters at a news conference on Friday that the union was making sure all of its "i's are dotted and t's are crossed."
Gideon MacKay, who teaches on Chicago's West Side, said he hoped Sunday's meeting would lead to a new contract, or at least a suspension of the strike.
"It's been draining," MacKay said. "We're teachers. That's what we do, we teach."
The strike is the biggest U.S. labor dispute in a year and has galvanized the national labor movement. It also has shone a light on a fierce U.S. debate over how to reform struggling urban schools across the country.
High school teacher Colleen Murray said the rally was meant to send the message that teachers were united.
"I'm hoping to see a fair evaluation process that recognizes that teachers cannot control all of the variables that go into student achievement," Murray said.
Both sides agree Chicago public schools are not doing well. Students perform poorly on standardized tests of math and reading, and the high school graduation rate is 60 percent, compared with 75 percent nationally and more than 90 percent in some affluent Chicago suburban high schools.
The union has railed against Chicago's unelected school board, which is stacked with representatives of business such as Penny Pritzker, an executive of Chicago's billionaire Pritzker conglomerate and a major Obama fundraiser. They say the board is trying to privatize and corporatize the public school system.
They have criticized Chicago's effort to open more publicly funded non-union charter schools, sometimes run by philanthropists, while some poor-performing traditional community public schools are being closed.