Villaraigosa is one of several Democratic mayors in cities across the country — Chicago, Cleveland, Newark and Boston, among them — who are challenging teachers unions in ways that seemed inconceivable just a decade ago.
“This is a very, very interesting political situation that is way counterintuitive,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, who has written two books about teachers unions.
At at time when most Americans believe that U.S. education is imperiled, and cities are especially struggling to improve schools, the tension between the mayors and the unions is causing a fundamental realignment of two powerful forces in urban politics.
In the clash over what is best for children, adults on both sides are gambling.
The mayors risk turning labor friends into enemies, a lesson then-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty learned in 2010 when he lost his seat in part because teachers were enraged by his school reforms. The unions, meanwhile, risk appearing recalcitrant and self-serving, further alienating a public frustrated by failing schools and growing cool to organized labor.
The mayors want a raft of changes. They want to replace the uniform pay scale with merit pay. They seek to expand public charter schools, which are largely non-union. Some want to lengthen school days, requiring teachers to work more hours.
And nearly all of those mayors have set their sights on the one workplace protection that teachers have held central for more than 100 years: tenure.
The unions say many of the “fixes” embraced by the mayors are trendy ideas without evidence that they help children learn. Instead, they allow politicians to appear as if they are making improvements without having to confront the profound problems of urban schools, labor leaders say.
“We don’t want to have honest conversations about poverty and segregation and race and class, all those other sorts of ills,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “Those are really tough issues. So this gives them an excuse to focus on something else.”
Her union fought Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s effort to add 90 minutes to the school day in Chicago, which has the shortest school day of any major city. Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Obama, got the Illinois legislature to pass a law that will allow him to impose a longer school day starting in September. It also makes it harder for the union to strike, among other things.
On the national level, teachers unions have started to recalibrate, looking for ways to work in partnership with politicians.