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The Next Union Showdown: Teachers vs...Rahm Emanuel?

First, there was Chris Christie. Then, Scott Walker. And now...Rahmbo.

Yes, Mayor of Chicago and President Obama's former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is gearing up for a battle with the Chicago Teachers' Union, likely to come to a head this summer. And while he's Gov. Walker's political antithesis, Emanuel finds himself in the same sort of budgetary crisis as Walker's Wisconsin -- and staring at the very same solution: cutting costs in unionized areas of the public sector.


While he’s also working to implement cost cutting for firefighters and cops, Emanuel’s most prominent target is the CTU. Its already highly-compensated members take umbrage at his desire to extend the school calendar by 90 minutes a day, and ten days a year, while only offering them a 2% pay raise in 2012-2013. By contrast, the union feels entitled to a 30% raise over the next two years – especially since their workload is about to increase. However, as the Wall Street Journal points out, they’re already handsomely paid compared to the rest of the city:

The average Chicago teacher makes $76,450, nearly 30% more than the typical private sector worker in Cook County—and teachers work two months less a year. Their last five-year contract called for 4% annual raises. However, the district rescinded teachers' raises last year because its deficit ballooned to $700 million. Its deficit is projected to grow to more than $1 billion in the next two years due to soaring pension costs. Teachers can retire at age 60 with an annuity equal to 75% of their highest average salary, meaning that teachers earn more in retirement than most Chicagoans do on the job.

Teachers want a bevy of other perks guaranteed in their contracts, which would cost the district an additional $800 million. The union says the city could pay for the new contract by raising taxes on the rich and corporations, but schools' main source of local funding is property taxes—which would have to rise by 75% to meet all of the union's demands.


Emanuel and the CTU were engaged in a game of political chicken over the issue, but yesterday, the union began voting on whether to authorize a strike, a move that, apparently, Emanuel was not expecting. He’s waiting on a fact-finding report, due in July, which would ostensibly back his claims that the unions don’t need the money they’re trying to negotiate for themselves. Theoretically, this ought to foce him to capitulate, and in sunnier economic times, he probably would. However – despite the inherent popularity of teachers generally – the strike is not expected to garner any particular favor with the public, who are themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Many of those same citizens believe they’ve been shafted during the recession and that nobody bailed them out. While they may theoretically support organized labor’s well-intentioned defense of its members, they increasingly discern unions to be on the wrong side of issues dealing with economics and accountability.

As one top Emanuel ally put it Wednesday, “They ask, ‘Why are those people being protected and I’m not?’” 

[T]here can be little doubt that even Democratic governors and mayors who might even painfully consider doing battle with unions, to gain both savings and efficiencies, can now use the Wisconsin legacy as a negotiating hammer.


Indeed, Emanuel himself has stated his willingness to go to war with the unions – traditionally allies of the Democratic Party – if their interests don’t jive with what’s best for the community generally. While speaking about the contract dispute between the firefighters’ union and the city, he said as much:

“My view is, I have a responsibility to all the people of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel said at a news conference to announce GE Transportation will move its headquarters here. “Not a few, not one part of the city, all the people of the city of Chicago. And I've got to make sure the taxpayers and the residents are represented. That's my role.”

“I respect what Tom (Ryan) has to do, I respect what the members of the firefighters operations as a city employee have to do,” the mayor added. “But I've got to make sure we're making the changes that are necessary for the future, and we're not just doing things like we used to do them because we used to do them.”

The mayor declined to discuss any specifics of the contract negotiations. “You describe them as cuts,” Emanuel said. “There are places that, while the negotiations are private, that I would say are reforms.”

Of course, it’s worth noting that Emanuel still describes himself as pro-union, and offered full-fledged support for Tom Barrett’s failed Wisconsin recall gubernatorial campaign. However, this conflict represents the uncertain future of public sector unions in politics. When everyone suffers in the poor economy, Democrats have a harder time kowtowing to the unions’ desires. Their rebuke in Wisconsin seems to be carrying over – and not just from state to state, but political party, too.


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