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Windy City's teachers' strike a local uproar politically

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon September 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Showdown between Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and teachers' union unlikely to broadly impact the election
  • Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign has tried to make political hay of union fight
  • President Barack Obama's campaign maintains high union support
  • The nation's teachers watching Chicago closely, could be swayed by handling of strike

(CNN) -- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's showdown with the city's teachers' union is making waves in the Windy City but the standoff involving President Barack Obama's former chief of staff will cause few ripples with voters nationally, political experts say.

The labor battle intensified on Monday as a Cook County judge refused to immediately hear a school system request to force members of the Chicago Teachers Union to return to the classroom and end the walkout affecting more than 350,000 students since last week.

The union said the legal maneuver appeared "to be a vindictive act instigated" by Emanuel, who has been called a bully by the group associated broadly by many with a nationwide effort by organized labor, including education unions, working hard to re-elect Obama.

But the politically charged drama in Chicago and Emanuel's role in it is unlikely to impact how voters nationally feel about the president or unions, or sway undecided voters, said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University.

"It really is a local issue," Abramowitz said. "It's not about Obama."

While voter approval of unions has declined steadily over the past two decades, the sentiment has changed little over the past two years, according to a Gallup poll released last month that showed roughly 52% of Americans approve of them.

Still, Obama has kept his distance from the discord in his hometown and Democratic stronghold led by one of his closest allies.

Emanuel's involvement also comes at a particularly sensitive time for him and fellow Democrats. The strike has forced him to dial back his new role helping to raise millions of dollars for pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA.

"There's no question that the strike in Chicago and the conflict (with) Rahm Emanuel is a challenging one for the president," Abramowitz said.

Moreover, Republicans have sought to leverage the strike to their advantage as GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, raced to put Obama on the spot when the walkout began.

Romney said Obama "has chosen his side in this fight."

Ryan chimed in, saying that he sided with Emanuel in the fight which has pit frustrated parents against the traditionally Democratic-leaning teachers' unions.

"This does not have to divide the two parties," Ryan said at a recent campaign fund-raiser in Portland, Oregon. "And so we're going to ask, where does President Obama stand? Does he stand with his former chief of staff Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with the children and the parents, or does he stand with the union? On issues like this, we need to speak out and be very clear."

Emanuel called the Republican backing "lip service" and called them out on the political strategy.

"What really counts is what we're doing here and I don't give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass or whatever the president," Emanuel said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney has said Obama's chief concern is for the "students and families" affected by the walkout and is hoping for a resolution.

If anything, the strike nationally may be viewed as an ill-timed fight given the weak U.S. economy, said Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University.

"For 23 million people who are unemployed or underemployed they are not sympathetic," Craver said. "There's a sense because of the economy people aren't sympathetic to workers who have job security and good salaries."

Teachers in Chicago are among the highest paid in the country with a median base salary of $67,974 in 2011, according to the system's annual financial report,

The strike has drawn national attention as teachers negotiate over the length of the school day, object to their evaluations being tied to performance, and fret about job losses from school closings.

Public and private sector unions nationally are pushing back against performance-based initiatives, an approach common in business and the public sector for evaluating salaried and other non-union employees.

Reaction to the strike in Chicago has been mixed in the pro-union town.

Parents are juggling work and paying more for childcare, but many support the teachers' action.

The strike, nevertheless, and Obama's silence is unlikely to weaken broader support for him from organized labor.

Nearly six in 10 union workers said they would back Obama in the November election, according to a Gallup poll conducted in June. The poll indicated 57% of registered union workers said they supported Obama, with 35% saying they back Romney.

However, remaining mum could dampen teacher enthusiasm for Obama when it comes to volunteering to man phone banks and knock on doors, said Steven Ashby, a professor of labor and employee relations at the University of Illinois.

"The labor movement has been mobilizing against attacks on collective bargaining units by Republicans governors in Wisconsin and Ohio and now it's turned to a Democratic mayor," Ashby said, referring to similar push back between elected officials and unions in those states.

"The Democratic party has relied on teachers unions not just for votes but as volunteers. ... Now, when the Democratic Party says 'We need your help' (teachers) will say 'where were you in Chicago'? ...Teachers across the country are watching this."

CNN's Political Unit, Kevin Liptak, Shawna Shepherd and Paul Steinhauser contributed.

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