September 19, 2012 / 2:10 AM / 6 years ago

Analysis: Tough tactics leave Emanuel bruised in fight with Chicago teachers

CHICAGO (Reuters) - There is room to debate who won the battle between Chicago and its striking teachers union but there is little disagreement the strike and the deal approved by union members on Tuesday mark a personal loss for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel addresses delegates during the first session of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, September 4, 2012. REUTERS/Jason Reed

University of California-Berkeley professor and labor historian Harley Shaiken described the deal as a win for both sides, saying the teachers “won overall on points” because they maintained public support and got a compromise deal.

But he said the strike by 29,000 school teachers and staff that began September 10 underscored the limits of Emanuel’s powers.

“Rahm has been bruised by this fight, but he’s still standing,” Shaiken said. “He may have to learn that using a bulldozer isn’t the most effective tool to be used in all circumstances.”

Emanuel, a Chicago-born former Democratic Congressman and top White House aide to U.S. President Barack Obama, developed a reputation over the years in Washington as a street-wise, profane, tough-talking yet effective and influential politician.

His campaign in the mayoral race in 2011 brought in $14.3 million, dwarfing the fundraising efforts of his five opponents and making him seem at times like the inevitable winner.

Since taking office he has cultivated an image of being “a chief executive who can get things done,” said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago city council member.

But instead of clinching a deal with the Chicago Teachers Union, Emanuel found himself in an often personal confrontation with teachers, many of whom described the mayor as a bully and a wealthy man out of touch with the labor movement, a vital part of the Democratic coalition for nearly 80 years.

The more than week-long strike was even seen as potentially damaging to Obama’s re-election chances if it dragged on, as it could have strained relations with national unions. A long strike would likely have hurt local public support for the union, especially among parents of the 350,000 children affected.

The deal reached takes the pressure off the union and Obama.

“The timing of this was absolutely toxic for all involved,” said Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I have no doubt the White House was urging Emanuel to get this done quickly.”

Emanuel has denied the Obama administration pressured him.

Weakened by the dispute, analysts said Chicago’s mayor has alienated the labor movement in ways that could cause him more trouble down the line.

The teachers union specifically agreed to only a minimum three years for the contract to put “our next contract campaign right in the midst of the next mayoral election campaign.”

His attempt to force the teachers back to work by seeking a court injunction was just seen as making things worse.

“Going to court was a terrible move,” Chaison said. “It was highly confrontational and will create problems with other unions in the city.”


The dispute between Chicago’s teachers and the city came down to benefits and, most importantly, an evaluation system for teachers that the union fiercely opposed.

Emanuel can justly claim that while he may have lost the battle he also may have won the war. The new contract lengthens the school day and, for the first time in 40 years, puts in place a teacher evaluation system that includes weightings for standardized student tests. In school closings and rehires, the mayor also retained almost complete discretion, agreeing only to establish a pool of high-rated teachers eligible for rehiring after layoffs.

All those were major goals for Emanuel and positive outcomes for any Emanuel financial backers associated with the national education reform movement. But many no doubt also saw the tough-guy mayor as giving in too much.

Emanuel’s compromised on the new teacher evaluation system by phasing in the new plan over several years and reducing the weighting of standardized test results. Analysts saw that as a victory for Karen Lewis, the veteran chemistry teacher and combative new union leader who led the union out on strike.

“The big winner here is Karen Lewis,” said John Tillman, CEO of the conservative Illinois Policy Institute. “She played a big hand and she won. Rahm Emanuel is the big loser.”

“I think Rahm went into this thinking he had more leverage than he did,” he added.

Tillman said the solution for Emanuel now, especially with the school district’s $665 million budget deficit even before the latest raises in the new contract, is to increase the number of so-called charter schools in Chicago.

Charters - publicly funded but largely non-union - have a mixed record of improving student academic performance, studies show. But school closures will be a budget necessity, analysts said.

The new teachers contract also freezes employee health care contributions, which Thomas Wassel, a New York-based lawyer at law firm Cullen and Dykman who specializes in labor and employment law, said “would be a significant victory for the union” at a time when union benefits are under siege.

Such compromises at the end of the brief yet acrimonious dispute hurt Emanuel at a time when the city faces contract talks with other unions, notably with the police and fire departments, said Simpson.

“Rahm has managed to make the unions more opposed to him,” he said. “It’s very likely the labor movement will actively seek a challenger for Emanuel.”

Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Peter Bohan and Lisa Shumaker

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