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Threat Of Chicago Teachers Strike Casts Shadow All The Way To Charlotte

Chicago Public Schools teachers flood Daley Plaza on Labor Day, a week ahead of a strike deadline, to rally for a new contract with the Chicago Public Schools. (Credit: CBS)

Chicago Public Schools teachers flood Daley Plaza on Labor Day, a week ahead of a strike deadline, to rally for a new contract with the Chicago Public Schools. (Credit: CBS)

Jay Levine Jay Levine
Jay Levine is the chief correspondent for CBS 2 Chicago. He joined...
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Updated 09/04/12 – 6:21 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) – For Chicagoans, there is no escaping the effort to avert a school strike – not even at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C.

CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports there’s a sense among politicians and labor leaders at the convention that a strike—albeit a short one—might be inevitable, given the hardline positions both sides have taken.

Chicago’s school children and the teacher contract talks had to be on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s mind as he flew to Charlotte Tuesday afternoon, to talk about his years in the Oval Office at the DNC.

Emanuel’s speech is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Chicago time. Afterward, he will do interviews with Chicago media, then interviews on the national morning news shows on Wednesday, before hosting a Chicago blues party in Charlotte Wednesday night. Then he’ll head home, having been away from Chicago and those teachers talks for less than 36 hours.

Even in Charlotte, though, he’ll find it impossible to escape the topic of a possible teachers strike, or those willing to help avert it, like Rev. Jesse Jackson, who also helped mediate a firefighters strike in 1980 and the last Chicago teachers strike in 1987.

“If we can be a part of reconciling, we want to. I remember the issue of the firemen’s strike more than 25 years ago got ugly because it got personal,” Jackson said. “The union chief was calling [then-Mayor] Jane Byrne names, and she was calling him names. It became so much animosity; they couldn’t get to the three or four points of the contention.”

Much the same has happened this time between Emanuel and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who called the mayor “a liar and a bully” at a teachers rally on Monday.

That might be why an outside mediator could help be it Jackson, or – as Jackson suggested – Gov. Pat Quinn.

“There’s a lot at stake in this. That’s why it can’t just be a finger-pointing, it must be a circle of embrace, as opposed to finger-pointing,” Jackson said. “I hope the governor will see his role in this, because it’s within the state.”

The governor wasn’t available to respond to Jackson’s suggestion Tuesday afternoon. He was getting ready for the convention speech he’s due to deliver at about 5:30 p.m., although an aide said he’s got an awful lot on his own plate.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said it doesn’t matter who it is, as long as someone helps make it happen.

“We don’t want a strike. It’d be a terrible outcome, and I think that the mayor is working night and day with Karen Lewis, to find a way to get through this. There are tough issues, but nothing that is impossible,” Durbin said. “People of good will can reach an agreement. I’m ready to come to the table, I’m ready to invite anyone to the table, if both sides feel it would be helpful.”

Illinoisans weren’t the only ones with an eye on Chicago. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he was backing his Chicago counterpart.

“I’m facing the same thing that he’s facing. Our teachers union – it’s not the teachers, it’s the union leadership who wants too much,” Menino said. “I think Emanuel’s right on the right track. and I support what he’s doing.”

A copy of Emanuel’s speech already has been distributed in Charlotte and, although the contents are embargoed until he delivers his remarks, a copy of the speech shows he does not plan to mention the threat of a teachers strike in Chicago, either directly or indirectly. That doesn’t mean he won’t be thinking about it.

The mayor’s also not the only Illinois politician in Charlotte facing a dispute with organized labor.

The tension between Gov. Pat Quinn and organized labor was obvious.

On the surface, the Illinois delegates’ breakfast Tuesday morning was mainly friendly, with chairman and House Speaker Mike Madigan having to quiet the chatter of socializing delegates.

But, as delegates picked up their badges and convention materials, there was also a clear undercurrent of unrest — which prompted a warning from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis (D-IL).

“If we are disjointed, divided, or torn – then we’re not as successful,” Davis said.

Quinn arrived in Charlotte sitting between a rock and a hard place, confronted with a rolling billboard paid for by AFSCME, accusing Quinn of being “Unfair To Illinois Working Families.”

The unions have been at war with Quinn over state job cuts, despite having created far more private sector jobs than he’s cut from the state payroll.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez said, “You’ve got the largest capital bill that was passed in Illinois history – modern history anyway — $31 billion.

“You know, it was passed at the beginning of his administration. In the last two years in Illinois, we’ve had the two largest bid lettings in modern history, essentially, so … those people are going to start to be put back to work.”

Struggling to quell the controversy, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton warned union members that things could be far worse.

“Thank God we have these governors from Wisconsin and Indiana, to remind us they don’t even want to have the unions exist,” Cullerton said.

But the battles between the governor and AFSCME, and between Emanuel and the teachers were impossible for Illinois Democratic Party and Illinois convention delegation chairman Mike Madigan to ignore.

“In Illinois, we have a fiscal problem – a serious fiscal problem – at the state level, and we’re calling upon everybody to sacrifice,” Madigan said.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but with those references to Wisconsin and Indiana, state Democratic leaders were trying to sugarcoat the state’s labor tensions, at least as much as possible.