Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The massive teacher strike in Chicago offers a high-profile test for the nation’s teacher unions, which have seen their political influence threatened as a growing reform movement seeks to expand charter schools, get private companies involved with failing schools and link teacher evaluations to student test scores.
The unions are taking a major stand on teacher evaluations, one of the key issues in the Chicago dispute. If they lose there, it could have ripple effects around the country.
Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are “a bit weaker,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. “They are playing on more hostile terrain and they are facing opponents the likes of which they have not had to face before.”
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union — the AFT’s oldest local — walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security and teacher evaluations.
They are pitted against Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a powerful Democrat — and former chief of staff to President Barack Obama — who wants to extract more concessions from teachers while the school district faces a nearly $700 million deficit.
Major teacher strikes have been rare in recent years, compared with the 1960s and 1970s, when teachers went on strike frequently for better pay and improved bargaining rights. While unions generally got what they wanted in the past, they face a tougher climate today.
With the weak economy, unions have seen massive teacher layoffs, increased class sizes and school districts unable or unwilling to boost teacher salaries. Like other public employee unions, they are also under attack from Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who signed a measure last year to curb collective bargaining rights and limit benefits for state workers.
The 2.2-million member NEA has lost more than 100,000 members since 2010, as fewer public school teachers are hired and more charter schools open, most of which are not unionized. At the 1.5 million-member AFT, years of steady growth have leveled off.
“They certainly are on the defensive,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor of education and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. “They are under attack. A lot of times they are demonized. On the other hand there’s really smart and progressive elements in the teacher’s movement who want to get out ahead of this and do it in a way that’s fair.”
In the past, teachers unions could count on a Democratic White House to fight back on their behalf. But Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a former head of Chicago Public Schools who has pushed for many of the changes that unions oppose.
“In many ways the Obama administration has signed onto the very conservative set of reforms that the education community is imposing on teachers,” said Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.
Both the NEA and the AFT have strongly endorsed Obama’s re-election despite his administration’s support of policies to expand charter schools, weaken tenure and base teacher evaluations on how much student performance improves.
The Chicago union argues that the new teacher evaluation system relies too heavily on standardized test scores without considering outside factors such as student poverty, violence and homelessness that can affect performance.
Hess said the Chicago strike has become an important test case after unions lost their effort to recall Wisconsin’s governor.
“If it looks like the union folds, especially on the heels of Wisconsin, it’s a huge blow for the unions,” Hess said. “If the union seems to win, that’s going to be a blow to reform-minded mayors and puts some wind into the sails of unions.”
There are major differences, though, between the cases in Wisconsin and Chicago.
While Walker effectively challenged public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights, both sides in Chicago have been negotiating over traditional labor-management issues. The district proposed a 16 percent raise over four years and the two sides have essentially agreed on a longer school day. But job security and a new teacher evaluation system remained in dispute.
“This is a long-term battle that everyone’s going to watch,” said Eric Hanuskek, a senior fellow in education at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. “Other teachers unions in the United States are wondering if they should follow suit.”
Teacher unions also are growing nervous about how they are portrayed in an upcoming Hollywood movie called “Won’t Back Down,” set to open in theaters on Sept. 28. The film tells the story of a mother’s quest to take control of her daughter’s failing elementary school.
AFT President Randi Weingarten has blasted the movie as “using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen” and unfairly blaming unions for the nation’s school woes. Union leaders were even more outraged that the movie was screened at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — the convention chairman — attended the screening.
Villaraigosa is a former union organizer who has spoken out in favor of greater accountability for schools and teachers.
Follow Sam Hananel’s labor coverage at http://twitter.com/SamHananelAP
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)