LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. In Chicago, 25,000 teachers are planning to walk off the job tomorrow if they don't have a contract by midnight. And as Democrats look to labor unions to help them get out the vote on this Election Day, a strike by Chicago teachers just might put a crimp in those plans. Becky Vevea of member station WBEZ in Chicago reports.
BECKY VEVEA, BYLINE: On Friday during rush hour, a handful of parents and students are standing on a bridge over the Eisenhower Expressway. They're holding signs that read: Honk if you support teachers.
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VEVEA: Rhoda Gutierrez has two children in a Chicago public elementary school.
RHODA GUTIERREZ: We're having a hard time holding it up, but we're here because we know this makes not just an impact on our city but nationally.
VEVEA: Parents like Gutierrez and others who support the teachers union are up against a school district and a mayor who have a very different idea about what the public schools should look like. In the contract battle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union, the two sides are furiously campaigning for public opinion as the city braces for the first teacher strike since 1987. Emanuel is pushing for big changes - a longer school day and year, a new system for evaluating teachers and a whole new way to pay teachers. At the Democratic National Convention last week, he defended many of his reforms.
MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: For the first time in a decade, our kids are getting a full school day and a full school year. For the first time in a decade, they're getting a very rigorous academic standard. For the first time, we're getting five new high schools all dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math. Six thousand more kids are going to magnet schools. We're making major changes.
VEVEA: The union wants Emanuel to pay teachers more for what amounts to more work. And teachers are pushing back on some reforms that the mayor didn't tout at the DNC. They want smaller class sizes, more art and music, and job protection when the district shuts down low-performing schools and opens privately run charter schools, which are not typically unionized. Marty West is a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. He says similar conflicts are playing out across the country, so it's not surprising that it's happening in a big union town like Chicago.
MARTY WEST: Many districts are in a situation not too different from Chicago's, where you have a district that is facing strong fiscal pressures, that is committed to driving a reform agenda, that is provoking resistance from the union. And how this plays out, I think, will be important in determining what goes on nationally.
VEVEA: He says the dynamic is causing something of a rift in the Democratic Party. Steven Ashby, a labor professor at the University of Illinois, says a strike in Chicago could present problems for Barack Obama's re-election.
STEVEN ASHBY: He will win Illinois delegates in the November election, but nevertheless the last thing he wants is the Republican Party talking about how teachers are on strike in Chicago.
VEVEA: But it's also a big gamble for the union. Both West and Ashby say the outcome in Chicago could affect the future of organized labor at a time when membership is down and public sector unions are struggling. Back at the overpass, parent Jennifer Biggs agrees with what the union is fighting for, but says there really is no political candidate supporting those goals.
JENNIFER BIGGS: The Democrats and the Republicans seem to be on the same page with education, which to me is terribly scary. I just think they're really going to lose some votes or a lot of people might even just stay home.
VEVEA: Picket lines are scheduled to start tomorrow morning if the two sides can't reach a deal by 11:59 tonight. For NPR News, I'm Becky Vevea, in Chicago.