Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Chicago teachers strike a Democratic feud

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
updated 7:38 AM EDT, Fri September 14, 2012
Ruben Navarrette says the Chicago teachers strike reveals deep divisions in the Democratic Party over education reform.
Ruben Navarrette says the Chicago teachers strike reveals deep divisions in the Democratic Party over education reform.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chicago teachers strike is affecting more than 350,000 students
  • Ruben Navarrette: Strike reveals Democrats are divided about education reform
  • He says strike also tests the relationship between unions and the Obama administration
  • Navarrette: For Obama, the strike could turn into a headache if it isn't resolved soon

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette

(CNN) -- A lot of Americans probably look at the teachers strike in Chicago and think that this is just another labor dispute with workers making demands and causing a work stoppage until they get what they want.

But the Chicago teachers strike, which is causing turmoil in the nation's third-largest school system by shutting out of the public schools more than 350,000 students, is about a lot more than that.

It's not really about money. The deal on the table isn't too shabby. City officials are offering teachers a 16% salary increase over the next four years. Chicago teachers already earn an average annual salary of $74,236, according to a study by Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. These aren't exactly blue-collar workers in hardhats trying to scratch out an existence. Even Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has said that the city's offer is "not far apart" from what the union is seeking.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

This strike is about teachers unions testing their boundaries with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. They're hitting back at him for what they perceive to be the anti-union hardline position he took shortly after assuming office last year.

More importantly, the strike is about something that isn't often discussed in the media or in politics: Democrats are divided on education reform.

Chicago teachers want Obama's support
Parent perspective on strike
Strike won't keep athletes from practice

In one camp, you have reformers who believe that all children can learn and that teachers and schools have to be held accountable for making sure that happens.

In the other camp, you have teachers unions, whose job it is to protect their members but who now interpret that mandate to mean that they should protect teachers from public demands for greater accountability, higher standards and a better education for our children.

The strike is testing the relationship between unions and the Obama administration, with which Emanuel is closely aligned having served as White House chief of staff.

These days, support for Obama from organized labor is lukewarm at best. Labor unions did not spend as much money as they typically do in support of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. This was in part because union officials were angry that the event was held in the right-to-work state of North Carolina. Plus many of them do not think that Obama has been responsive to their concerns.

Teachers unions are especially angry with Obama, and with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for adopting a policy that closely resembles that of their nemesis. George W. Bush had "No Child Left Behind." Obama has "Race to the Top." Both advocate high-stakes testing where teachers and schools are evaluated based largely on the academic performance of students and rewarded accordingly. (By the way, judging producers by their products happens all the time in the private sector. Only in a public school system where mediocrity and low expectations are the new normal would that be considered a radical concept.)

The Chicago Teachers Union has never gotten over its resentment for Duncan, who served as Chicago superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2009 and implemented many of the same accountability measures that Bush and Obama embraced.

That's why Lewis this week said this at a rally in downtown Chicago, "The revolution will not be standardized. The assault on public education started here. It needs to end here." And, as Lewis sees it, who started the "assault" on public education? Arne Duncan.

With the strike, the Chicago Teachers Union is sending a strong message to Washington -- to both Obama and Duncan -- that it is in charge of what goes on in the public schools, and it won't be dictated to by politicians in Chicago or Washington. And not even Democrats, especially not Democrats to whom teachers unions have given tons of money over the years.

The teachers unions want politicians to know that the teachers they represent are sick and tired of standardized tests, merit pay and attempts to lengthen the school day. Maybe they just want to be paid more and more while less and less is expected of them. After all, tragically, that's the modern American Way.

So will the strike affect the presidential election at all?

Mitt Romney wasted no time in criticizing the Chicago strike. That was a low-hanging fruit. His Republican base does not look favorably on unions and strikes anyway, and they know the score -- that the money that unions pour into elections on the side of Democrats often makes it harder for them to elect Republicans.

For Obama, the strike could turn into a headache. He would clearly love to stay out of it, but that might not be possible if the work stoppage drags on much longer. Obama will have to do something that he is often reluctant to do when it could alienate supporters -- show leadership.

Obviously, when it comes to education, Chicago Democrats are one big dysfunctional family that is feuding.

Well, it's time to put a stop to it.

Emanuel needs to assert control over this situation. The strike has gone on for a full school week. That's long enough, especially since it isn't really about achieving a better deal for members as much as it is sending messages and settling scores. If the teachers aren't back in their classrooms on Monday, the mayor needs to decertify the union, fire the teachers and hire replacements.

It's been done before. In February 2009, at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, the school board voted to dismiss the entire faculty -- including more than 70 teachers -- as part of a dramatic turnaround plan. The school had a graduation rate of less than 50%. The teachers were hired back a few months later after they agreed to certain concessions. At the time, Obama and Duncan supported the firing, which is another reason why teachers unions don't like this administration.

"Rahm-bo" has a reputation as a tough guy in standing up to Republicans. Now, if he wants to be a public servant and not just a partisan, it's time for him to be just as tough in standing up to members of his party.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT