The effects of the Chicago Public Schools strike go far beyond the country's third-largest district, injecting new energy into the national debate over the role of public employee unions while creating odd political dynamics for Democrats and Republicans.
A prolonged walkout by about 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union affecting more than 350,000 students threatens to become a national embarrassment to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city that is the home of his former boss, President Barack Obama.
Republicans nationally already have seized on the strike aggressively, criticizing the teachers union and offering support for the administration of a city they have regularly vilified by invoking the "Chicago Way" moniker to criticize Obama's style of politics.
"Rahm and I have not agreed on every issue or on a lot of issues, but Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teachers union strike is unnecessary and wrong," Rep. Paul Ryan, the Janesville, Wis., congressman who is GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate, said at a campaign fundraiser this week in Portland, Ore.
"We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day, we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel," Ryan said.
Such words of encouragement are not exactly the kind of support Emanuel wants -- the mayor dismissed it as political "lip service." Emanuel loves the national spotlight when he's portrayed as a hands-on, problem-solving mayor, but now he's featured prominently in major newscasts as Chicago experiences its first teachers strike in a quarter of a century.
"While I appreciate Mr. Romney's statement on behalf of the kids and the parents of the city of Chicago, if he wants to help, he can determine that when it comes to his tax cut, he will never cut the Department of Education and the funding that's necessary," Emanuel said.
Through Romney, Republicans are driving the national storyline, aided by what a White House spokesman said was the president's decision not to take sides. The GOP is trying to exploit Obama's neutrality, which is the result of a campaigning president trying to avoid criticizing either his former chief of staff for trying to bully the union into a deal or organized labor, which historically is a core constituency for Democrats.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who chairs the Republican Governors Association, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty each put out statements on Romney letterhead criticizing Obama for what they said was putting the special interests of organized labor ahead of students by not denouncing the union's decision to strike.
"This is Chicago-style politics at its worst," said McDonnell, who governs an important presidential-election swing state. "Even the president's former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, recognizes that this strike is wrong."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, applauded Obama for not taking the Republican "bait." The CTU is the federation's Local No. 1, and its roots date back more than 100 years.
"It has national implications, but it has to be settled at the bargaining table," Weingarten said during a visit Tuesday to the picket lines in Chicago.
"This is far more than a labor struggle," she said. "This is a struggle for the heart and the soul of public education for the kids of Chicago."
Republicans have been the most hard-line in going after public employee unions, most notably in Wisconsin under Gov. Scott Walker. He survived a union-inspired recall vote after the GOP there enacted laws that eviscerated most of their collective bargaining rights.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also used his recent Republican National Convention keynote address to note that public-sector unions and their benefits had been considered a "third rail of politics" until GOP leaders took action.
"They believe in teachers unions," Christie said of Democrats. "We believe in teachers."
In Illinois, political clashes with organized labor have involved the Democrats who run government -- from protests that chased Gov. Pat Quinn from a state fair stage last month to Emanuel's efforts to wring concessions from teachers and push for an increase in private charter schools.
"I can't think of any group of professionals who have been treated with as much disrespect by the political power brokers as the teachers of this city," said Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31.
With the recession cutting into government revenues, Democrats in Illinois -- like Republicans elsewhere -- have gone after public-sector jobs and benefits. That has included Quinn's attempt to close state facilities and a push to overhaul the state's pension system with its $83 billion unfunded liability, the worst in the country.
Still, a Tribune poll in May found that 40 percent of the city's registered voters sided with the teachers union on the comprehensive debate over improving public schools while only 17 percent backed Emanuel's efforts. Among parents of public school students, the teachers' advantage grew to 48 percent compared with only 18 percent siding with Emanuel.
The mayor has deflected questions about how the strike could hurt him and the positive image of Chicago he has worked to convey nationally.
"Having gotten communication from around the country, I know people think we are pushing for the right reforms," Emanuel said. "If you're worried about national reputation ... nothing means more to me than the reputation of our children."
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