Much has been written about what the ongoing Chicago teachers strike means for education reform and teachers unions. While the implications for education policy are undoubtedly fascinating, the political implications of the strike go far beyond both education and Chicago. When considered along with recent events at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the strike in Chicago suggests that disagreements between union and non-union factions of the Democratic Party may soon escalate to outright war.
On its own, the teachers strike might mean very little for national politics. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has never been known for his diplomatic skills, and this is hardly the first confrontation between a Democratic mayor and a teachers union. The timing, however, is interesting. Just a few short weeks before Election Day, we would expect two major players within the Democratic Party to be making a more concerted effort to play nicely, at least in public.
Some have concluded from the strike that long-standing disagreements between education reformers and teachers unions are simply coming to a head. They may be overstating their case. After all, disagreements between Democratic mayors like Adrien Fenty in Washington, D.C., and teachers unions are longstanding. In other words, the policy disagreements aren’t new. What may be shifting are the political calculations of both sides.
What these commentators seem to miss is that the strike is not an isolated case. The disagreements at the heart of the disagreement are not confined to education; they are part of a recent trend towards more confrontational relationships between unions and non-union party members in general. When we consider other recent events, it becomes clear that the strike isn’t only about the Democratic Party’s relationship with teachers unions. It is more about defining the relationship between labor and non-labor factions within the Democratic Party.
We need only look so far as the recent Democratic National Convention to see that organized labor has increasingly been struggling to get along with other factions of the Democratic Party. North Carolina, the host state, has a right-to-work law and relatively few unionized workers. When it was announced that Charlotte would host the DNC, union leaders reacted with shock and outrage; the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers called the move “a slap in the face.” The AFL-CIO and other unions withheld funds from the convention committee in protest.
Like the Chicago strike, the disagreement about Charlotte reveals nothing new in terms of the makeup of the Democratic Party. There have always been union and non-union forces that have, at times, disagreed about priorities and decisions. However, the inability of union and non-union factions to at least feign unity in the months leading up to Election Day suggests an escalation of the two sides’ willingness to confront each other.
If the trend continues, the Democratic Party may be in for a very public sorting out of priorities in the coming months.
Three simultaneous trends may at least in part explain the increasing level of confrontation between union and non-union Democrats. The Chicago strike suggests that fiscal scarcity is at least partly to blame. It is far harder to hold a coalition together as shrinking city, state, and federal budgets limit the number of priorities that can be met at once.
Charlotte suggests another underlying cause: Democratic efforts to geographically and demographically expand the party coalition. The choice of Charlotte was an overt appeal to the state’s new swing-status. As Democrats continue to attempt to expand their coalition into redder areas, tensions are bound to arise.
Finally, the strong sense of unions around the country that organized labor is under attack from all sides may create an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere. Scott Walker’s successful reelection in Wisconsin coupled with right-to-work legislation in states like Indiana have pushed unions into a corner, and they may well respond with a fight-to-survive mentality.
The case of Charlotte, however, suggests that after the Chicago teachers strike concludes, Democrats might be able to postpone any more public confrontations between unionized and non-unionized party faithful at least until the election is over. The pressing need for party unity eventually drove the fractured party back together in Charlotte, as three union presidents addressed the convention and the same IBEW president declared, “we are going to support the ticket.”
Whatever the timeline, Chicago and Charlotte are strong reminders that, despite recent focus on the future of the Republican Party, Democrats have plenty of sorting out of their own to do.
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