The teachers union will never recover from this strike in Chicago. If their demonstrations against Scott Walker were self-destructive, then the strike now unfolding is pure assisted suicide.
Of course, voters like the teachers union when they advocate for better schools but hate them when they strike. And, of course, voters empathize with teachers when they ask for more money but are alienated when they seek to perpetuate tenure for incompetent teachers and to fight merit pay based on student performance.
The fact that the strike is not focused on wages and benefits but on work rules, tenure and seniority will drive voters to turn off these teachers all over the country.
But the worst news for the teachers union is that their strike is against a Democrat, not a Republican — against Rahm Emanuel, a Democratic mayor closely identified with both presidents Clinton and Obama. Against a Republican, people may figure the teachers have a case and are victims of GOP insensitivity or their desire to cut spending. Their opposition to Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin and their inability to recall him attested to the limits of the union’s power but did not strain its credibility. But against a Democrat, the teachers union’s strike is marginalizing them and making them seem like the far out liberal loons they are.
At the same time, Emanuel is establishing the notion that pro-education, pro-teacher mainstream Democrats also want the reform of tenure, the adoption of merit pay and accountability, and school choice. He is triangulating. On the one hand, we have Republicans whose commitment to education is, on the left, suspect. On the other hand, there are the unions who want no change and no accountability. And then there is Emanuel and his ilk of Democrats who want reform without gutting public schools. It is this third way that will destroy the political plausibility of the teachers union.
For the moment, the strike forces Obama to choose between his voters and his donors, between his supporters and his field organization. The Democratic Party is largely owned by the teacher union. It is its financial pillar and its leading source of manpower, field organization and grassroots workers. If Obama sits out the strike having made such a big deal of his education agenda at his convention, he looks weak. If he sides with the teachers, he marginalizes himself. But if he backs Rahm, he will alienate the very forces he needs to get re-elected.
The teachers strike — as long as it lasts — is a national spectacle of union suicide as surely as was the PATCO strike early in Reagan’s term.