Last week’s teachers strike took some of the luster off Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s self-portrait as an innovative leader brimming with new ways to solve the city’s most vexing challenges. (Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune / September 15, 2012)
The measure of who won and lost in Mayor Rahm Emanuel's showdown with the Chicago Teachers Union won't be clear until the details of the new contract emerge, but last week's strike took some of the luster off the mayor's self-portrait as an innovative leader brimming with new ways to solve the city's most vexing challenges.
The long, stressful path to getting a contract in place offered a glimpse that Emanuel perhaps is not as multidimensional as he tries to appear. Repeatedly, the mayor turned to one tool: the attack.
That singular approach contributed to the first teachers strike in 25 years and served to heighten organized labor's suspicions of the new mayor, whose union bashing kept him from playing a hands-on role at the negotiating table.
On Friday, after spending more than a year attacking the teachers union, Emanuel sought to strike a conciliatory tone as word spread about the much-improved prospects for a deal.
"This tentative framework is an honest and principled compromise that is about who we all work for: our students. It preserves more time for learning in the classroom, provides more support for teachers to excel at their craft and gives principals the latitude and responsibility to build an environment in which our children can succeed," Emanuel said in a statement.
The dialed-back rhetoric stands in contrast to what came before. Emanuel's argument for a longer school day and year started out as an accusation, not a conversation.
In building his case, the mayor said Chicago Public Schools teachers had regularly received pay raises, the city had labor peace and students got the shaft. Emanuel's contention, made last September shortly after his hand-picked school board took away half the teachers' previously negotiated raise, implied that educators were lazy, resistant to change and didn't have students' best interests in mind.
It's a classic Washington tactic: Define your opposition before they can themselves. It's the kind of approach Emanuel perfected during his political upbringing in the nation's capital as a congressman and veteran of two White Houses.
It also underscored the learning curve Emanuel has yet to master — an executive must have the ability to maneuver between dominance and persuasion.
"Well before the strike, there were a number of shots fired that were unwarranted, and it set the tone," said Ald. John Arena, 45th. "The mayor has tended to be very one-dimensional in his tactics. This isn't Congress anymore, or the backroom."
Emanuel treated the teachers negotiations as just another political campaign: Win the message of the week, then the month and ultimately the war. It's much the way Emanuel won other faceoffs with labor, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he passed for President Bill Clinton.
This battle was different. It was a collective bargaining agreement, not legislation. At some point, the two sides had to sign a deal.
As the threat of a strike grew, it became clear to labor leaders that Emanuel's closest advisers lacked significant experience in hashing out such a collective bargaining contract. Emanuel's political team contacted leaders of other unions across the city looking for insights on how best to talk to the teachers and to game-plan ideas, said a labor source who was approached and spoke on condition of anonymity.
"They wanted to know that if X happens, what would the teachers think and then how would labor in general react," the source said.
Some close to Emanuel said the mayor and his team experienced growing pains in the run-up to the strike. He desperately didn't want the teachers to walk out and hoped the nonstop public relations campaign would win him support.
"It's been a new world for all of them," said one longtime Democratic political strategist close to Emanuel.
Even in the midst of the strike, Emanuel couldn't resist his tendency to try to score political points in the rhetorical contest with the union.
Last week, he repeatedly compared Chicago's teacher union to its counterpart in Boston, which just resolved its own long-standing dispute. But Emanuel ran into a veracity problem.
The mayor said Boston teachers stayed in the classroom while negotiating. What Emanuel didn't mention: It's illegal for teachers to strike in Boston.
"If we had a right to strike and we had to deal with such an obstructionist mayor as Mayor Emanuel, then we probably would have gone out on strike as well," said Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, who describes himself as a friend of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. "Fortunately in Boston, we have a more collegial atmosphere."
Emanuel also suggested that the district's proposal would give Chicago teachers more money than educators in Boston. The mayor said Boston teachers accepted a 12 percent increase over six years while Chicago teachers were seeking 16 percent over four years.
Emanuel's math didn't take into account that Boston's contract also includes increases for teacher experience and education beyond the 12 percent.
Ald. Daniel Solis, 25th, said the strike presents a growth opportunity for Emanuel.
"I think this has shown him the importance of broadening the base, that it's not all about sound bites or commercials," Solis said. "If I was the mayor, I would look at what happened and say, 'I need to learn from this.'"
Early into his tenure, Emanuel set out to make city workers the fall guy for Chicago's budget woes. He had slightly more political license to seek givebacks from labor because many of them did not back his candidacy and he was going after government workers when support for public sector unions had fallen to historic lows.
He's also made some city employees compete for their jobs with private industry in a battle to see which can provide existing services for less. Implicit in this strategy is the threat of cutting city jobs.
The lessons learned with teachers might help the mayor as he navigates contract talks with Chicago's Police Department and Fire Department, which are both working under expired agreements while the two groups haggle with the city over salaries, incentives and contract minutiae.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, said he expects Emanuel's experience with the teachers union will make him a little less strident in pushing forward with policies likely to find him at odds with organized labor.
"I would imagine that would be the case," Sawyer said. "I think he can see the unions are standing solid on these issues."