A parent of a school student is reflected in the glasses of teacher Yasman Vaughn during a protest in Chicago. (AP)
Washington, Sept. 17: Just like in India, America’s third largest city is turning to the judiciary to find a way out of its most immediate and pressing problem.
Harried parents in Chicago, at a loss to manage their school-going children after a week of being astray, and a big town mayor determined to demonstrate his authority over the city today turned to a court to force its striking teachers to go back to work.
A lawsuit in Chicago’s Circuit Court arguing that labour action by teachers is a threat to public health and safety alleges that their strike “prohibits students from receiving critical educational and social services, including meals for students who otherwise may not receive proper nutrition, a safe environment during school hours and critical services for students who have special needs”.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s recourse to judicial relief came after the city’s teachers surprisingly rejected an agreement yesterday in defiance of their own union’s leadership which had painstakingly negotiated the settlement with Chicago’s civic administration over several days last week.
The determination among rank and file teachers to continue their action under collective bargaining comes on the first anniversary today of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which has focused attention on the huge economic disparities in the US and has become a rallying point for popular protests against the seamier sides of capitalism.
In Manhattan, hundreds of protesters today attempted to shut down Wall Street with a human wall to choke off the entrance to the New York Stock Exchange. They were arrested and bundled into buses, many of them handicapped “occupiers” who came to demonstrate in their wheelchairs.
The anniversary and the turn of events in Chicago, Barack Obama’s hometown, do not bode well for the President in his re-election campaign. They have the potential to turn the tide against Democrats who had improved their popular standing after a successful party convention and hiccups in the opposing Republican camp.
Trade unions constitute a rock solid base for Democrats. A successful effort by Chicago’s mayor, who is personally close to Obama and was his chief of staff for two years, to cripple the teachers’ agitation by judicial fiat poses the danger that unionised workers, disenchanted with Democrats, may simply stay at home on election day and not vote for the President’s re-election.
Any resurgence of the “occupy” movement on its anniversary could combine with the disapproval of Chicago’s anti-labour actions to produce the worst nightmares for Democrats less than two months before national elections here.
It is also not certain if the Circuit Court will give the mayor the relief he is seeking because experts are divided on whether the strike by teachers is illegal. Unlike Chicago, some US cities, Boston, for example, have unambiguous statues making it illegal for teachers to stop work.
A refusal by the bench to end the strike through judicial intervention will further undermine Emanuel’s position and complicate the issues raised by the teachers’ agitation.
Last Friday, in an unexpected shot in the arm for labour rights activists, a judge in Wisconsin nullified a controversial law that severely curbed collective bargaining by public employees in that state. That legislation became a rallying cry for US workers to mobilise themselves against attempts across this country to fault organised workers, in part, for America’s current economic woes.
At the same time Republican governors in many US states began copying the Wisconsin law to assault trade unions, especially trade unions of state employees. Wisconsin is to appeal against Friday’s ruling.
Meanwhile, in one part of Chicago, the Lake Forest High School re-opened with the help of school system administrators, substitute teachers and volunteers.
However, local rules demand that in order for such reopening to be legally valid, at least half of the school’s enrolled student strength must be in attendance on a given day and proof must be provided that certified teachers taught their wards for a minimum of five hours in core syllabus.
It was not clear at the time of writing whether these requirements were met today. Parents worry that if the strike drags on, the local school district may not have the mandatory 176 school days in one year. If it falls short, students face the risk of losing one academic year.
Beyond politics and the elections, the strike has divided parents and Chicago’s society. The main local newspaper, Chicago Tribune reported today that there were shouting matches between groups of parents at a weekend meeting where it was decided to re-open Lake Forest High School without its regular teachers.
According to the newspaper, the school’s Principal Jay Hoffmann was cheered by some parents when he reported at the meeting that he had been asked during the strike “Why don’t you just fire the bums?” a reference to the agitating teachers.
Such a reaction angered some other parents.
“You are disgusting,” yelled one parent who sympathised with demands by the strikers. “Why are we teaching students not to honour the labour forces that historically are in play here?” a reference to the origins of May Day in the city.
One parent told the Tribune later: “Why wouldn’t my child learn more on the picket line than here? I am appalled that people would applaud.”