Teachers Unions Go on PR Offensive in Runup to Election

Fearing that the recent Chicago teachers strike might have eroded union support across the country, labor organizations are ponying up for an extensive publicity campaign to improve their image. The Washington Times is reporting that an umbrella group for many of the nation’s teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers, will be holding community events in cities all over the U.S in the waning weeks of the 2012 election season.

Some speculate that this new push is an indication that far from being chastened by the events in Chicago, the unions are going on the offensive.

“Unless the balance of power changes, there will be another strike,” said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform and critic of teachers unions. “Just because [Chicago] was the first strike in a while does not mean they’re less interested in sticking to their guns. It’s not yet to the point where there’s outrage [among the public] to spark a revolution against this.”

Teachers strikes are a fairly rare occurrence. Even in Chicago, where the influence of the teachers union is fairly extensive, teachers hadn’t walked out of their jobs in more than a quarter of a century. This fact might serve as a true indicator of the bitterness of this particular round of negotiations between the teachers and the city’s new administration headed by the recently elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In the end, both sides offered concessions to get teachers back in classrooms and reopen the schools.

Teachers will get an average 17.6 percent pay raise, significantly less than the 30 percent hike initially sought, over the next four years. The union successfully fought off Mr. Emanuel’s efforts to have student test scores count for as much as 45 percent of teacher evaluations, negotiating the number down to no higher than 30 percent, according to terms of the deal.

Still, the latest move to put themselves in a more positive light in the eyes of the public could be seen as a concession to the reality that unions don’t enjoy the same level of support — even within the Democratic Party — that they once did. While the voices of the teachers unions were heard at the Democratic National Convention held earlier this year, education reformers like Michelle Rhee were also very visible and vocal. Several prominent Democratic politicians, like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is coming off his own bruising contract negotiation with LAUSD teachers, offered support for Emanuel during the strike.

Groups such as Democrats for Education Reform continue to grow in stature and influence, and are among the loudest critics of the power that teachers unions have over education policy in the U.S.