It is also the boldest confrontation yet involving one of a growing number of Democratic mayors who have been pressuring unions to accept policy changes in cities such as Boston, Cleveland and Los Angeles, creating a schism between the Democrats and a traditional ally.
“It’s not just about the negotiations in Chicago,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “Because of the visibility of the mayor, this is an important stand for the union. They’re trying to send a message nationally about what teacher unions are going to tolerate from Democratic mayors.”
At a news conference Monday, Emanuel said the strike was “totally avoidable.”
“This is a strike of choice, and it’s the wrong choice for our children and it’s not necessary,” Emanuel said.
The labor dispute lays bare a Democratic Party with significant tensions over the direction of school reform. Major figures such as former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein have pressed for tougher teacher evaluations and an end to “last in, first out” hiring practices that are part of many union contracts. On the other side are labor leaders and other interests convinced that the reforms are union-busting by another name.
While Obama has maintained close ties to teachers, he has promoted policies many of them dislike. They include the Race to the Top grant competition, which rewards states for evaluating teachers in part by how well their students perform on standardized tests.
“There’s frustration and growing resistance to these so-called reforms that are being pushed without any evidence that they work,” said Lisa Guisbond, a policy analyst for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is opposed to high-stakes tests.
Within hours of its start, the strike migrated into the presidential race, providing a tactical opening for Republican candidate Mitt Romney and a sticky political situation for Obama.
Romney underscored the president’s relationship with unionized teachers and, more broadly, organized labor. In a statement, Romney, who has assailed unionized teachers as an obstacle to education reform, also seemed to be taking a page from the playbook of two Republican governors, Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey, who made political gains by taking on public employee unions.