Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Chicago teachers strike a Democratic feud

By Ruben Navarrette Jr., CNN Contributor
September 14, 2012 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
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
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT