Opinion: “Rahm Emanuel Likes Nickelback”

The most memorable sign at Monday’s Chicago Teachers Union demonstration in the Loop had nothing to do with higher pay, test scores or smaller class sizes. It was a slur on Rahm Emanuel’s taste in music.

“RAHM EMANUEL LIKES NICKELBACK,” it proclaimed in Magic-Markered letters.

My God, I thought, when I saw that. How low will union thugs stoop in their campaign of character assassination?

My next, more serious thought was that this teacher’s strike is a good argument for allowing Chicago to elect its own school board, like every other school district in Illinois. Although the president of the school board is the lead negotiator, he’s not the teachers’ main adversary. That’s Emanuel.

Teachers call him “Empermanuel” and chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Rahm Emanuel has got to go.” His abrasive, headstrong, autocratic management style may have provoked this strike in the first place. He reportedly had a profane encounter with union president Karen Lewis, and teachers complained they weren’t respected by a mayor who doesn’t really respect anyone but his fellow millionaires.

Emanuel is a reason the strike has received national attention, and he’s the reason it’s become part of the presidential campaign. In an effort to discomfit President Obama and split the Democrats from their union allies, Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan told a fundraiser in Oregon, “Mayor Emanuel is right today in saying that this teacher’s union strike is unnecessary and wrong. We know that Rahm is not going to support our campaign, but on this issue and this day we stand with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.”

The Washington Post characterized the strike as “a bitter dispute with Mayor Rahm Emanuel” and wrote, [t]he fact that the fight revolves around Emanuel, a former chief of staff to President Obama, has pushed the municipal labor fight into prime time and complicated the political calculus. Obama is relying heavily on the support of unions in his reelection bid, and the Chicago strike immediately figured into the landscape of this fall’s political campaigns.”

Writing at Salon.com, Chicago journalist Rick Perlstein also made the dispute all about Rahm.

Since Rahm Emanuel’s election in the spring of 2011, Chicago’s teachers have been asked to eat shit by a mayor obsessed with displaying to the universe his “toughness” — toughness with the working-class people that make the city tick; toughness with the protesters standing up to say “no”; but never, ever toughness with the vested interests, including anti-union charter school advocates, who poured $12 million into his coffers to elect him mayor (his closet competitor raised $2.5 million).

Making this strike about Emanuel is bad for the students, bad for the city…and an embarrassment for the mayor. Emanuel has already lost so much face in this dispute, it’s a good thing he has two of them. 

 This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $1.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.

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