"They had [the capital of California] locked down," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of teachers unions in 2007. "I couldn't get a resolution that said, 'His name is Antonio Villaraigosa.' I mean, they had it locked down!" New Yorker reporter Connie Bruck described Villaraigosa's "evident admiration for the union's display of raw power."
The Chicago teachers strike today displays a different kind of raw power. In fatter times, the union could allow a powerful Democratic mayor to submit to its will in the relative privacy of a statehouse. In the Windy City, teachers are making a show of force in plain air.
The Chicago Teachers Union is not merely saying no to a $400 million deal that would have increased pay by 16 percent over four years. The union is doing so in a way that purposefully humiliates one of the country's most powerful Democrats. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is President Obama's former chief of staff, and he bragged about his school reform efforts last week at the Democratic National Convention.
The complete disarray of the Democratic Party makes it hard to say what the party's strategy is ("Forward"? "We can't wait"? "D is for drive"? "Dead/Alive"?). But Obama and his party at least need to put forward the idea that the Democrats are better than Republicans at coaxing concessions from public sector unions. This shouldn't be hard to do. Given the unions' recent high-profile losses in Wisconsin, San Jose and San Diego, Democrat chief executives theoretically have extra leverage. The unions certainly can't believe they'll be getting better deals if they throw elections to the Republicans. (Not that the GOP could win an election in Chicago, or L.A. for that matter.)
But Laborgeddon is upon us. Early last week, the conventional wisdom was that organized labor had been forced to accept a supporting role at the DNC. I don't see how anybody who watched a fair portion of the speeches in Charlotte could say that conventional wisdom was correct. The Democrats are totally at the mercy of government employee unions. It doesn't matter that cities and states are bankrupt. In fact, the fiscal crisis makes it even more important for organized labor to show its authority over the Democratic Party. The Chicago teachers strike is just a baroque flourish to drive the point home.