(Bloomberg) — Striking Chicago teachers on Thursday chanted a blunt challenge to the maverick mayor of the third-largest U.S. city: “Lori Lightfoot, get on the right foot!”
This year’s election of Lightfoot, a gay black woman and daughter of a union steel worker, represented a shift — and perhaps a national bellwether — for a heavily Democratic constituency that chafed under her centrist predecessor Rahm Emanuel. But like Emanuel before her, Lightfoot is failing to win over a party mainstay, the Chicago Teachers Union. Its 25,000 members walked out Thursday, seeking higher pay, more nurses and housing for homeless students.
The conflict threatens to further mire a city with a vast gulf of wealth and race, whose poor, violence-wracked neighborhoods are an object of derision for President Donald Trump. The junk-rated school system has soaring pension costs, years of declining enrollment and was recently saved from insolvency thanks to state aid. And in less than a week Lightfoot must deliver a separate municipal budget that closes an $838 million deficit, the largest in recent history.
Chicago’s fiscal woes come after two decades in which it was governed by Richard M. Daley, whose father was a legendary political boss, and Emanuel, who had been chief of staff to President Barack Obama. Emanuel clashed repeatedly with parents and teachers as he closed 50 schools in the name of economy.
Lightfoot, 57, didn’t benefit from a national profile or an organization built over years. But she won support by underscoring her progressive credentials and cultivating corporate leaders. She was endorsed by the city’s two major newspapers and its chamber of commerce — but not the teacher’s union, which supported her opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Lightfoot promised to rein in autocratic members of the City Council, to increase affordable housing and to invest in schools to nurture pupils of all colors and incomes. She had a star turn, appearing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” speaking to Democratic National Committee activists and even dining with Oprah Winfrey with her wife, Amy, an event memorialized on her Instagram account.
Now, after only five months in office, her ability to tread a line between progressivism and business-friendly fiscal policies is in question as she tries to stem a loss of residents, avoid raising property taxes, close the city’s yawning budget gap and end the strike, which followed months of contract negotiations.
It’s a test of strength. “Some of it has to do with timing, a new union president and new mayor,” said Michael D. Belsky, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Municipal Finance. “They are trying to flex their muscles.”
Presidential candidates who represent the left-most wing of the Democratic Party are lending support to the teachers. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist, showed up for a union event and tweeted his good wishes Thursday. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also said on Twitter that she stands by the union members and supports the “need to invest in all of our public school staff.”
Don V. Villar, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, said at a Thursday rally that support for the union is strong. “All around the country they are watching what we are doing here,” he said.
Lightfoot insisted Thursday that she has gone as far as possible financially to satisfy labor.
“We’ve made good on things I said during the campaign,” Lightfoot said in response to reporters’ questions. She noted that the school board in August approved a budget with more money for nurses and other staff. The city’s contract offer includes a 16% pay increase over five years, which the teacher’s union rejected.
“Keep in mind that CPS is just on the other side of the line from insolvency. We are borrowing $700 million every year, when you’re doing that your finances are still in a precarious state,” Lightfoot told reporter Friday after serving some children breakfast at Gads Hill Center in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Though she acknowledged the district has made improvements, “CPS is not flushed with cash. That is a total misnomer.”
“There is no more money. Period,” she said.
The walkout reflects what poor- and middle-class workers feel around the country, said Timothy Dohrer, assistant professor in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University in suburban Evanston. “Teachers are an important member of what we used to call the middle class, a bellwether,” he said.
Frustration boiled over because there’s a sense the profession has been devalued, he said.
Lainey McFarlane, a special-education instructional coach and case manager, voted for Lightfoot despite her union’s endorsement of Preckwinkle. Lightfoot’s focus on school funding appealed to McFarlane, who until a year ago worked as an elementary teacher. She had 34 children in one first-grade classroom.
Lightfoot “had a lot of promises about what she was going to do for the city, kids in the city, for schools” McFarlane, 32, said on the edges of an afternoon strike rally Thursday in Chicago’s Loop. “She hasn’t come through.”
Laura Enciso, a special-education classroom assistant, said that most of all she wants resources for children.
“I am waiting,” she said.
Lightfoot’s ability to end that wait — and how she chooses to pay for it — may determine the course of her mayorship.
(Updates with mayor’s comments in 13th and 14th paragraphs)
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