Chicago teacher strike poses test for unions

Villaraigosa is a former union organizer who has spoken out in favor of greater accountability for schools and teachers.

Teachers’ union leaders have been trying to change the public’s perception that they stand in the way of education reform. At the AFT’s annual meeting in Detroit in July, Weingarten promoted what she called “solution-based unionism,” a new kind of activism that “focuses on solving problems, not on winning arguments.” She said that’s how the AFT must respond to years of cuts to public education funding and attacks on collective bargaining rights.

Rampant cuts in education have hurt both teachers and students, she said, “and they’ve made it impossible to maintain the same level of quality we have tried to provide.”

“More than ever, we need to act in innovative, creative, and new ways—simultaneously refuting our critics, advancing our values, connecting with community, and proposing solutions. That’s solution-driven unionism,” she said.

The Obama administration has pushed for unions and school district administrators to work together to tackle tough problems, convening an annual Labor-Management Relations summit for the past two years. The summit has highlighted examples of successful labor-management collaboration in districts nationwide.

The Chicago strike has become a political rallying cry for the Republican Party. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that striking Chicago teachers are turning their backs on thousands of students and that President Barack Obama is rooting for the absent educators. Obama’s top spokesman said the president has not taken sides but is urging both the teachers and the city to settle quickly.

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Emanuel called Romney’s statement “lip service” as the contract dispute in the nation’s third-largest school system inserted itself into the hard-fought presidential campaign.

Romney said he chooses to side with the parents and students, echoing his oft-repeated campaign speech claim that teachers’ unions are out for themselves.

“We ought to put the kids first in this country, and the teacher’s union goes behind,” Romney, in the Chicago area for a fundraiser, told conservative syndicated radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt in a telephone interview. “As president, I will stand up and say, look, these teachers unions are not acting in the—with the best interest of the kids in mind.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama was monitoring the situation in his hometown but was not itching to get involved.

“We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly and in the best interests of Chicago’s students,” Carney told reporters.

Obama political aides in Chicago criticized Romney for seeking advantage and pointed to his repeated campaign statements that class size does not affect a student’s education.

“Playing political games with local disputes won’t help educate our kids, nor will fewer teachers,” said Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Emanuel, Obama’s former White House chief of staff, was more direct in dismissing Romney.

“While I appreciate his lip service, what really counts is what we are doing here,” Emanuel told reporters. “I don’t give two hoots about national comments scoring political points or trying to embarrass—or whatever—the president.”

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