- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Thousands of Chicago public-school teachers have taken to the streets in their first strike in 25 years. Usually Republicans are the ones being denounced by Big Labor for having the temerity to insist on fiscal responsibility in public-sector union deals. This time, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, of impeccable Obama-era liberal Democratic credentials, is the one facing the chanting mobs and bongo drums. It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is doing its best to fit the stereotype of greedy, out-of-touch laborites. The average Chicago teacher’s salary is $76,450 per year, compared to $47,000 for the average Chicagoan. The CTU is demanding a 30 percent pay bump over two years, with 24 percent coming in the current school year. Stunningly, the union turned down a 16 percent pay raise offered in arbitration. In addition, they want smaller class sizes, more hires and more time off to go to conferences and other time wasters. In short, they want it all.

These demands would be outsized even in the best of times, but these days the city and the country are stuck with a low-growth economy, high unemployment and record amounts of debt. The CTU will find no sympathy from taxpayers who are paid far less than teachers yet are expected to foot the bill for the union’s bloated demands. For his part, Mr. Emanuel is in the unpleasant position of having to balance the city’s budget. Life was so much easier when he was in Washington finding ways to deficit-spend borrowed money, knowing he would never be held accountable. No doubt, Mr. Emanuel’s untouchable life as President Obama’s chief of staff must seem like halcyon days by comparison.

The union’s case would be stronger if they could argue that Chicago teachers are producing results, but Chicago’s kids have been ill-served by the public-school system. Seventy-nine percent of CPS 8th graders aren’t grade-level proficient in reading, and 80 percent aren’t proficient in math. Barely more than 55 percent of high-school students graduate, and for those who do there is some question what they have learned in their 12 years.

The CTU goes into the confrontation with some advantages. They can count on parents to push for a resolution since they want their kids to get back in school as soon as possible. The election year also provides leverage. Mr. Obama doesn’t need a labor dispute clouding his narrative, especially when the heavy in this scenario is his former aide. Union members marching in the streets denouncing “Rahmunism” produce what the White House calls “bad optics.” Mr. Emanuel insists Mr. Obama is backing him up, though the White House has pointedly avoided making a public statement to that effect.

Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney is turning the strike into a popular referendum on the inflated power of public-sector unions. This increases the pressure on Mr. Obama to try to force Mr. Emanuel to cave to union demands and get the issue out of the headlines. It remains to be seen if Mr. Emanuel’s tough-guy persona is justified, or if the Windy City teachers will take the mayor to school.

The Washington Times