I know a thing or two about what it's like when the well paid go on strike, because as a member of the Writers Guild of America--the Hollywood scriptwriters' union--I went on strike a few years back. I recall an awful lot of shouting and dramatics and walking around in a circle back then too. But there were doughnuts, which made the whole experience easier. If you have to picket, it's best to picket with a chocolate glazed.
What there wasn't--and isn't, in the case of the Chicago teachers' strike--was a lot of sympathy from the general public. The average salary of a Chicago public-school teacher is about $75,000--well above the national average. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the pugilistic former chief of staff to President Obama, offered the Chicago teachers a 16% raise on top of that, but he made the impolitic demands to lengthen the workday and--here's the trouble--tighten job-performance standards.
That was enough to send Chicago's teachers out into the streets and onto front pages all across the U.S.--a country, let's remember, where the unemployment rate stays rock steady at about 8% and employee evaluations are a quarterly event. It's not great optics, as the political fixers might put it, to be marching around, refusing to work, when millions of Americans are begging for a job. Not great optics, either, to dismiss a 16% raise and (slightly) stricter performance standards at the start of the school year.
It's especially tough on Obama--this is his hometown, after all--and the rest of the Democratic Party, which has stood with teachers' unions for decades. The National Education Association is the largest teachers' union in the U.S.--it's actually the largest labor union of any kind--and a major source of money and manpower for the Democrats.
It would be so much easier for everyone if there were a Republican around, somewhere, to blame for this mess. Grab a cruller, pick up a sign--republicans vs. education! or books not bombs!--and wait for the compliant media to report that, as usual, the right wing is trying to hurt your children.
Instead, awkwardness. A powerful ally of the Democratic Party battling a powerful Democratic mayor in the hometown of the incumbent Democratic President over work rules that any American worker with a job--which isn't an impressive number to begin with--would find utterly lenient isn't a great way to enter campaign season. Chicago, for Obama, is off-limits for the duration of the strike. On the day the strike erupted, the word from the White House was silence. This is ugly family business, it seemed to be saying, so let's keep it to ourselves.
But in a surprising display of fleet-footed political sophistication, support for Emanuel came from Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Real school reform is crucial, he said, and he cheered the mayor's resolve. Emanuel was compelled to issue a twisty pretzel of a statement that can be described only as not ungrateful for the Republicans' support. Hard to do, but Emanuel was trained as a ballet dancer, and he knows how to get himself into complicated shapes.