"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 memberships.
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. It has a stand-tough Mayor Rahm Emanuel -- aka. "Rahmbo," the "Rahmfather" and other terms of endearment -- and a stand-tough Chicago Teachers Union president, Karen Lewis, who occasionally is known to take even tougher stands than her parent union, the American Federation of Teachers.
With the nation's third largest school system, (25,000 teachers and almost 400,000 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 root for an unlikely hero, Democratic Mayor Emanuel, a former congressman and Obama's former 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, for whom he also was a White House aide, and for 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 SuperPAC, 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, either.
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 the school district with little wiggle room in the dispute. The district spent its financial reserves to close a $665 million deficit for the budget year that began in July, according to Reuters, and set property taxes at the highest level allowed by law.
Tim Knowles, head of the University of Chicago's Urban Education Institute, got it right when he described the dispute as "New Democrats vs. Old Labor." Democrats like Emanuel may sound a little more polite about it than Republicans such as, 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 a financial crisis and an education crisis that took decades to build in Chicago. If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere.
E-mail Clarence Page at cpage(at)tribune.com.(c) 2012 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.