Yesterday, September 10, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike after failed negotiations with the city. The CTU refused a contract offer from the city which included a combination of pay increases and layoffs. The union argues that the reasoning behind the strike was not disputes over salary; rather, it reflects their concern over underfunded inner-city schools, cuts to art and music, and teacher layoffs as a result of school closings.
I firmly believe in the right of all unions, including public-sector unions, to form, organize, and collectively bargain for their interests. This right is enshrined in the First Amendment, which guarantees the ability to assemble and petition the government. However, throughout our country’s history, this right was earned not just through peaceful means, but many times was fought for and paid in blood.
In the case of public-sector unions, the right to collectively bargain does not go hand-in-hand with the right to strike. Regardless of the legitimacy of the concerns of the CTU (which they certainly are), this strike is certainly not in the public interest. As I write this, more than 400,000 students in Chicago are not in the classroom where they should be. Many of them have one or both parents out of the house working. Many are too young to be staying home by themselves. Older kids, especially in the inner city, may get into trouble with their newly-found free time. This is a net loss to the city and society at large.
This is where President Obama comes in, and he has been placed in an awkward position to say the least. He cut his teeth in Chicago politics, and calls the city home. Chicago, and by greater extension Illinois, is a Democratic stronghold. One of the core constituencies of the Democrats is unions, and teachers unions in particular are historically strong supporters of the Party.
For Obama, however, things get tricky from here on out. Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel is his former chief of staff, and Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the former head of the Chicago Public School system. To make matters more complicated, Paul Ryan came out in support of Emanuel in the dispute.
Despite the fact that the situation has the potential to turn into an intraparty dispute with just two months to go until the election, I believe that Obama must take advantage of the enormous opportunity this challenge presents. Just as the quintessential Progressive, Teddy Roosevelt, successfully mediated an end to the Coal Strike of 1902, Obama must invoke and channel that Progressive spirit in bringing both parties back to the negotiation table. However, Obama must insist that the strike must end before talks begin, and in the interim, that the CTU revert back to their old contract until a new agreement is reached with the city.
If Obama is able to successfully arbitrate a compromise between the two sides, I believe that it would essentially guarantee his re-election this November. He would further solidify his image as a strong leader, preserving public-sector union collective-bargaining rights, while embracing fiscal responsibility on the part of government. Especially considering the circumstances of the strike, Obama must act quickly and decisively to get teachers back to work and the children of Chicago back in school.