by Paul Kersey
Director of Labor Policy
This will hardly come as news to most readers of this blog, but an occasional reminder is still useful: the ties between unions and the Democratic Party are numerous and strong. That goes for the Chicago Teachers Union and the administration with which they are bargaining. As Randi Weingarten, the head of the CTU’s parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, put it a couple days ago “…we need to find common ground and as Democrats we have to deal with each other.”
One might be tempted to think that party loyalty would improve chances of an amicable settlement between the union and the Mayor. There is danger in all this though. As the Sun Times observed, the risk of a strike cast a shadow over the Illinois delegation at the Democratic National Convention. Party political pressure will not dissipate now that the convention is over. The Presidential campaign will likely be competitive. A lengthy strike will be an embarrassment to the Democratic Party in any event – schools closed on account of Democratic infighting would make for a very effective GOP ad. The fact that the party’s Presidential candidate happens to be a Chicago native, and the current mayor is one of his former advisors, only ramp up the pressure higher.
It is entirely possible that the CTU will back down for the good of their political allies, but Rahm Emanuel is more tightly tied in to the formal structure of the Democratic Party and that makes him more vulnerable to partisan pressure. If the Mayor should choose to run for higher office (much rumored, though Emanuel denies such ambitions for now) it will almost certainly be under the Democratic label. CTU President Karen Lewis has her own power base outside of the formal Democratic Party, and appears to have no larger ambitions outside of the union itself. The CTU and the Mayor may both be supporters of the Democratic Party, but the Mayor has more to lose if a strike tarnishes the Democratic Party brand. To the extent that partisan politics will affect the negotiations, and it’s hard to see how they don’t play a role, the pressure to give ground and avoid embarrassing the party will almost certainly be stronger for Emanuel than for Lewis.
The Chicago Public Schools Board has already given ground on merit pay – just two days ago they dropped a demand that pay raises in the fourth year be connected to performance. It is to be hoped that the Mayor and his team do not give up a whole lot more ground on this and the related issue of teacher evaluations. It would be a tragedy if reforms were abandoned solely for partisan reasons.
But the awkwardness and intrigues among the Illinois delegation at the DNC should make one thing clear: collective bargaining doesn’t make politics go away. With an overtly partisan union, bargaining itself can be intensely political.