The strike attracted national attention because the battle was over education reforms that mirrored conflicts taking place around the country and also because Emanuel, a prominent Democrat and President Obama’s former chief of staff, was brawling with organized labor, a key constituency that Democrats need in the coming presidential election.
The fight exposed a rift within the Democratic Party over the direction of school reform. Democratic mayors in a growing number of cities, including Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles and Cory Booker in Newark, have pressed for tougher teacher evaluations and an end to tenure that are part of many union contracts. On the other side are labor leaders and others 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 through his Race to the Top grants, which reward states for evaluating teachers in part by how well their students perform on standardized tests.
Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who once ran the Chicago public schools, have said little publicly about the strike.
Most observers said Friday that the strike will not damage Obama or his relationship with unions.
“No runs, no hits, no errors,” said Steve Rosenthal, a longtime union organizer who is active in Democratic politics. “In the scheme of things, it’s over. When was the last time any labor dispute other than [the air traffic controllers] with [President Ronald] Reagan in ’81 or baseball in ’94 had any type of impact on the nation?”
The strike will not dim support for Obama on the part of labor, he said. “The unions recognize the clear differences between the Obama administration and [Mitt] Romney and the Republicans, who have denigrated unions and made them whipping posts,” he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent union, played down the conflict over evaluations and job rights and said the teachers in Chicago went on strike because they were at a breaking point over budget cuts, crumbling buildings and ballooning class sizes, among other problems.
“In Washington and New York and the further you get from Chicago, people didn’t get this,” Weingarten said. “This was about the heart and soul of public education and whether educators have the tools to do their work. It’s not about whether or not we want changes in public education; it’s about whether we have the tools to educate kids.”
She said there would be no lingering effect on the unions and their support for Obama. “We’ve had some concerns with some of the policies of the Obama administration that are too fixated on test scores, but we are all together and we’ll be working from shore to shore to get Barack Obama and Joe Biden reelected.”