How Rahm Emanuel handled the Chicago teachers strike


Striking Chicago Public School teacher Lanessa Mendoza pickets with fellow teachers from Peck Elementary School as Mayor Rahm Emanuel was visiting with students taking part at the Safe Haven program at Maranatha Church in Chicago, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. (M. Spencer Green/AP)
September 19, 2012

Students in Chicago returned to school Wednesday morning following a seven-day strike by their teachers in the city’s public schools. An agreement was reached to end the strike based on a contract proposal that included annual raises, a longer school day, new teacher evaluations and an effort to rehire good laid-off teachers into at least half of new job openings in the system’s schools.

Now that the strike is over, the reviews are starting to come in of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first major crisis as Chicago’s leader.

How did he handle this tricky dilemma, which not only took him away from fundraising for the Obama campaign but also created a politically difficult national story for Democrats that featured both unions and kids not in school? As Chicago’s mayor, did he really resolve any long-term problems for the school’s troubled system? How well did he bring his pugilistic style to the negotiations?

My own take is that Emanuel’s style likely hurt him, as people either expected him to fight for more than he got (which made any concession on his part look like giving in) or preemptively locked horns with the him as they prepared for battle with the notorious “Rahmbo.”

But I’m intrigued by some of the other opinions on the Web of how Emanuel’s leadership of the crisis fared:

James Warren, The Daily Beast (“Mayor Rahm Emanuel Reaches Flawed Deal to End Chicago Teachers Strike”):

It’s unclear how the system can afford the pay increases that were part of the deal, Warren writes, and the agreement only includes “modest advances in addressing the very problems that a wickedly bright mayor knows plague the system.” A leader who “was willing to do what his renowned predecessor, Richard M. Daley, was not: stand fast and take a strike” in the end “has not brought its major wolves at the door to heel.”

Still, Warren did offer the mayor at least some faint praise: “In a larger historical context, Emanuel opened important doors after a Herculean effort that confronted a nearly immovable object in a change-resistant union, but avoided the volcanic rancor that has plagued government-union relations elsewhere, notably in neighboring Wisconsin.”

David Feith, The Wall Street Journal (“Rahm Emanuel: Rahmbo at the School Barricades”):

Writing before the strike ended, Feith, an assistant features editor at the Journal’s editorial page, suggested that Emanuel’s “killer instinct” was stayed by the fact that he’s needed for the president’s campaign. “Rahm Emanuel is his generation's most noted political pugilist, the guy who once mailed a dead fish to a fellow Democratic operative whose work had disappointed him. … So you'd think that ‘Rahmbo’ would be the perfect leader—a popular, bona fide progressive reformer unafraid to speak his mind—to stand up for students and parents by facing down the Chicago Teachers Union’s first strike in 25 years. But when the teachers walked off the job on Monday and the strike wore on, the political force of nature seemed hesitant to brawl.”

Nick Carey, Reuters (“Tough tactics leave Emanuel bruised in fight with Chicago teachers”):

Carey quotes a range of labor experts reviewing Emanuel’s performance during the crisis, who suggested that Emanuel “may have to learn that using a bulldozer isn’t the most effective tool to be used in all circumstances” and who called Emanuel’s effort to try to end the strike through a court injunction “a terrible move” that “was highly confrontational and will create problems with other unions in the city.” Still, Carey writes, “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.”

What do you think of Rahm Emanuel’s leadership during the strike? Was his style effective? Appropriate? Share your thoughts in the comments.

More from Jena McGregor and On Leadership:

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The link between presidents and psychopaths

Do jerks make better leaders?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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