Last week, at a packed Labor Day rally at Daley Plaza, Lewis called Emanuel a “liar and a bully.”
“A lot of this is personal,” the administration official said. “A lot of this is Rahm. The teachers feel disrespected. No one wants this to go on. The longer it goes on, it hurts everyone — Karen, Rahm, everyone.”
But labor is pushing back at the notion that this is merely a local conflict. Wisconsin labor activists, who lost their fight with Republican Gov. Scott Walker this year over legislation that severely restricts collective bargaining by public-sector unions, are preparing to rally on Friday in Madison to support striking teachers.
“This is not a Chicago issue,” Kerry Motoviloff, president of Madison Teachers Inc., said on the union’s Web site. “This is not a Wisconsin issue. This is not even limited to a union issue. This is a worker issue. Scott Walker, Rahm Emanuel, they cannot define us.”
“This is an epic battle,” said Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers Union, who flew to Chicago on Tuesday to show support for the strikers.
Members of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, passed a 13-point resolution in 2011 stating that it was “appalled” by Duncan’s reform ideas. The resolution condemned his embrace of charter schools and the use of competitive grant programs such as Obama’s “Race to the Top” as an alternative to spreading federal education money evenly across the country.
But NEA President Dennis Van Roekel has said repeatedly that whatever differences the 3-million-member union has with the Obama administration, it would be worse off under Mitt Romney. The Republican presidential nominee supports vouchers that would allow parents to use tax money to enroll students in private or parochial schools, a program that teachers unions oppose.
Van Roekel, whose Washington office is decorated with posters and T-shirts that say “Educators for Obama,” has a monthly breakfast meeting with Duncan and access to the administration that his predecessor never had under George W. Bush.
“We’ve got more people actively involved [in campaigning for Obama] at this point than we did in 2008,” he said. “What’s happening in Chicago is not part of the presidential campaign. It’s way too serious and complicated.”
In New Hampshire, Scott McGilvray, state NEA president, said his members were so consumed with a gubernatorial primary race Tuesday that they weren’t paying close attention to the Chicago strike. The teachers union in New Hampshire has been collaborating on education reforms with state officials, and although McGilvray said teachers haven’t embraced every policy change the Obama has administration promoted, he predicted they will turn out in larger numbers than in 2008 to help the president win their swing state in November.
“You’re either in one camp or the other,” McGilvray said, referring to the choice between Obama and Romney. He added: “If you look at where Mitt Romney stands with vouchers and unions, he’s more of a threat than [John] McCain was. He was a neighboring governor who refused to meet with labor at all. Never let them into his office.”