Teacher strike in Chicago hometown may be headache for Obama

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 11, 2012 1:05 AM
Teacher strike in Chicago hometown may be headache for Obama

By Eric Johnson

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Chicago teachers' strike is putting President Barack Obama's re-election campaign in a bind, pitting unions loyal to him against officials with ties to the White House.

The Obama camp needs to be careful not to upset the unions, which it needs for campaign funds and to do ground work leading up to the November 6 election, while not alienating independent voters who are worried about the Democrats being too close to powerful labor groups.

While not directly involved, Obama is associated in many minds with local politics in his hometown, where one of his current cabinet members, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, formerly oversaw the schools and now endorses the changes that have angered teachers.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a former Obama chief of staff.

Some 29,000 teachers and support staff are involved in the strike to protest reforms such as performance evaluations for teachers and more authority for school principals.

"They should go back to work. I think it's unbelievable," said a major Obama donor in the Chicago area, worried about the effect the strike will have on Obama's image with the independent voters in swing states he needs to defeat Republican Mitt Romney.

"Every person I know who is a major donor to the president is against the strike decision," the donor said.

But the Obama campaign relies on the Democratic legions of rank-and-file union labor to carry out voter drives in key battleground states, which may be their best chance to overcome well-funded Republican attacks over the airwaves.

Obama is expected to handily win Illinois on Election Day, but he needs union help in closely contested Midwestern states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, where polls show Romney and Obama roughly in lock step.

"The unions are a strong part of the Democratic party and when you alienate the unions then you begin to pull the Democratic dominance of Chicago apart," said Dick Simpson, a political science professor at University of Illinois at Chicago.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday that Obama was aware of the situation in Chicago.

"(President Obama's) principal concern is for the students and families who are affected by the situation," Carney said. "We hope both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly in the best interest of Chicago's students."


The strike in the nation's third-largest school system is also a distraction for Chicago Mayor Emanuel from a key fundraising role for Obama.

Emanuel, Obama's closest aide during his first years in the White House, last week stepped down as one of several Obama campaign co-chairs to take up a role raising funds for political action committees backing Obama and Democrats.

That might take a back seat while he deals with the teachers' strike, the city's first in a quarter of a century.

"The mayor's first priority is the residents of the city of Chicago," said Thomas Bowen, director of Emanuel's political action committee. "He is committed to re-electing the president, but he must focus on his job as mayor right now."

Emanuel skipped a previously scheduled appearance at a fundraising event for Democratic House of Representative candidates on Monday due to the strike, Bowen said.

Romney, a former private equity executive, was quick to take sides. He and fellow Republicans are likely to link the strike to Obama if it does not end soon.

"Teachers' unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet," Romney said, in a statement.

Union representatives and the school district negotiated throughout Monday but no agreement was reached.

"The Obama campaign and the White House hope Mayor Emanuel will solve the problem quickly, so it will go away," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst with the University of Virginia.

"My assumption has been that Rahm Emanuel is going to solve this. He recognizes that he hasn't just created a problem for his city, but he's created a problem for his president," he said.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert and Greg McCune; Editing by Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)