CHICAGO (Reuters) – The confrontation between striking teachersand Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel moves to court on Monday where lawyers for the mayor will seek to end the walkout inPresident Barack Obama’s home city just weeks before the November 6 U.S. election.
The dispute between Emanuel, a former top White House aide to Obama, and organized labor, had appeared close to resolution on Sunday when Chicago Teachers Union leaders recommended to a meeting of union activists that the strike be suspended.
But a majority of the 800 or so union delegates, wary of promises made by Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools, ignored the leadership and extended the week-long strike until at least Tuesday.
Emanuel immediately issued a statement saying he would go to court to try to have the strike declared illegal. His lawyers were expected to file the challenge in the local Cook County Circuit Court on Monday.
Emanuel’s move took the dispute into uncharted territory. No injunction request has been filed in an Illinois education labor dispute since the state gave Chicago teachers the right to strike in 1984.
Some 29,000 public school teachers and support staff have been on strike since September 10 over Emanuel’s demand for sweeping education reforms.
From the beginning of the strike, the mayor has said the issues in dispute – teacher performance evaluations and giving school principals more authority – were not covered by the state law allowing the teachers to walk out.
Strikes in the United States usually are over wages and benefits but Emanuel is offering an average pay rise of more than 17 percent over four years, which the union accepts.
It was unclear how parents of the 350,000 of children out of school would react and how union members would respond to Emanuel’s legal move.
Opinion polls last week showed Chicago voters supporting the union but that could change as the strike drags on.
Willie Nawls, who has four children in Chicago public schools, said he has been fortunate because his two oldest children in high school could take care of the younger two.
“I’m very upset,” he said of the strike. “I’ll be patient with the union and see what they try to work out.”
The mayor’s negotiators and the union had worked out a compromise agreement on Friday that they hoped would end the strike. As part of the deal, Emanuel backed off some of his demands on teacher evaluations, agreeing to phase in the use of student testing to review teachers and dropping his insistence on pay based on merit.
The showdown has highlighted a national debate over how to improve failing inner city schools. Like Chicago, many major city school districts are losing students to the suburbs and have a high percentage of children from low-income households.
Emanuel believes that the best way to improve the schools is to set higher standards for teachers and to close low-performing schools and replace the staff.
The union wants cities to invest in traditional neighborhood schools and teacher training rather than close them down. Many of the children affected live in poor and crime-ridden neighborhoods and need more support to succeed, the union says.
Chicago teachers mistrust Emanuel and the school district because scores of schools have been closed in recent years. They say they fear Emanuel will close up to 20 percent of Chicago schools once the strike ends, which would lead to mass layoffs of unionized teachers.
They accuse Emanuel of trying to privatize public education by allowing outside groups to run some “charter” or “contract” schools outside the union but financed with public funds.
The dispute has become personal, with union leader Karen Lewis calling Emanuel a “bully” and a “liar.” Racial tension has been a backdrop, with the union saying a disproportionate number of black teachers have been laid off as schools are closed.
(Additional reporting by Renita Young, Peter Bohan and Mary Wisniewski; Editing by David Storey)