Chicago Strike Highlights Democrats' Rocky Ties with Teachers' Unions

Live Video: Thousands of teachers, their supporters march to CPS headquarters, City Hall

The Chicago teachers' strike may seem at first glimpse as an anomaly: a partisan Democratic mayor taking on a powerful public employees union.

Organized labor has historically been one of the Democratic Party’s most loyal constituencies. But the fight underway in Chicago illustrates how that dynamic is changing.

Led by President Obama, a new generation of Democratic leaders is clashing with teachers unions over how to reform the nation’s education system. Chicago Mayor (and former Obama chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel is one of the president’s foot soldiers in that movement, which focuses on linking teacher pay to student achievement and opening more charter schools. Another is Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who used to run Chicago Public Schools and is the architect of Obama’s Race to the Top initiative.

Teachers unions oppose many of the reform measures; teacher evaluations are among the sticking points in Chicago. But unlike Republicans, who are trying to weaken unions as embodiments of government waste, Democrats still count on them for votes.

Obama, in particular, needs the support of unions to beat Mitt Romney in November. That, in part, is why you don’t hear much anti-union talk from Democrats -- until something like the Chicago strike happens, political analysts say.

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The strike “complicates matters,” said Daniel DiSalvo, an assistant professor of political science at City College of New York. “It shows that this is a much more bipartisan issue than previously recognized.”

It remains unclear what, if any, impact the hours-old strike in Chicago will have on the presidential race. The education reform movement has become popular in the inner cities, a traditional Democratic stronghold where schools often lag behind the rest of the country. A recent Gallup poll showed that Obama’s handling of education was second in popularity only to terrorism. 

Among independent voters, the belief that unions are necessary to protect workers has fallen since the 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center. And more than half of swing voters think unions have too much power, Pew found.

Chicago is nothing if not a Democratic city, and Obama, its hometown hero, is expected to win the vote there, and in Illinois. But there remains a risk that teachers and members of other unions won’t support him as enthusiastically.

“Teachers are kind of a captured constituency,” said Patrick Flavin, a political science professor at Baylor University who has studied labor unions. “So let’s say they’re angry with Rahm or Obama for not looking out for their best interests. Where else are they going to go? They’re not likely to vote Republican. They just may be less likely to vote at all.”

At the same time, many unions have diverted resources from supporting Obama to fighting Republican attempts to restrict collective bargaining.

Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, tried to take advantage of the strike on Monday by criticizing Obama’s courting of unions.

"President Obama has chosen his side in this fight, sending his Vice President last year to assure the nation's largest teachers union that 'you should have no doubt about my affection for you and the President's commitment to you,'” Romney said in a statement. “I choose to side with the parents and students depending on public schools to give them the skills to succeed, and my plan for education reform will do exactly that."

Obama spokesman Jay Carney said the president had not expressed an opinion on the strike. "We're urging both sides to resolve it," Carney said, according to NBC News.

Another danger to Obama is that the strike will hurt his fundraising; Emanuel is one of the president’s top fundraisers, but he may not be able to concentrate as much on that job as he focuses on his problems in Chicago.

But Obama doesn’t seem to have much problem in that regard. The president reported raising more cash than Romney in August, the first time he’d beaten Romney in four months.

“I don’t think the president will be impacted negatively by this,” Flavin said.

That could change, if the strike drags on for weeks, however. The longer it lasts, the more attention it will receive, and that gives the public more time to learn about the Democrats’ complicated relationship with teachers unions.

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