The American anti-union movement is having a moment.
After Wisconsinites voted decisively this week to keep their union-busting governor, and voters in two California cities chose to cut pension benefits for municipal employees, attention turned Friday to Chicago where public-school teachers finished up a strike vote.
The target of the besieged Chicago teachers, however, is not some anti-union Republican. Instead, it is Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has pushed his onetime union allies to the point of walking off the job by making them work more for less pay.
Of all the attempts by U.S. politicians to rein in the runaway pay and benefits of public employees, none seems dicier than those led by Democratic mayors and governors. For them, balancing budgets and pleasing taxpayers invariably involves betraying friends.
If the notoriously aggressive Mr. Emanuel thought he could strong-arm the Chicago Teachers Union into quietly folding, however, he got far more than he bargained for. The former chief of staff to President Barack Obama now risks watching angry teachers take to the picket line when they might otherwise be out campaigning to re-elect his old boss.
"Does [Mr. Emanuel] really want, on the eve of a national election that could be very close in battleground states, to be generating the causes and conditions that have 18,000 largely female African-American workers on the street?" mused Robert Bruno, a labour professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Indeed, Republicans are enjoying watching Democrats like Mr. Emanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa spar with the very unions they count on to get elected. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, California's Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo of New York, all Democrats, are also locked in bitter battles with public-sector unions over proposed pension reforms. It has generated intraparty tensions most Democrats would rather do without.
Solidly blue Illinois, California and New York are not at play in the presidential race. But having traditional allies in the Democratic Party and labour at each other's throats could favour Republicans in congressional races both within and beyond those states. It could also help GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney sell his "small government" message.
At the very least, the optics are terrible for Democratic politicians. But the situation illustrates the delicate dance they must perform as they attempt to appease taxpayers – who think public employees have had it too good for too long – without alienating the very unions that supply the bulk of money and volunteers for their election campaigns.
The decades-old alliance between Democrats and labour is being tested by state and city budget woes that have been exacerbated by ballooning retirement costs. The bill for generous pension benefits granted years ago is now coming due as baby boomers retire.
Mr. Obama, who unilaterally imposed a two-year pay freeze on federal employees, has sought to keep public unions onside by pushing Congress to provide financial aid to states and municipalities. The latter have cut 450,000 jobs since 2008.
"These are teachers and cops and firefighters," Mr. Obama said on Friday. "Congress should pass a bill putting them back to work right now, giving help to the states so that those layoffs are not occurring."
Prof. Bruno predicted the Democratic-union alliance would ultimately survive because the U.S. two-party system has left organized labour with nowhere else to turn.
"Organized labour has this dilemma," he noted. "It has one party that is devoutly antagonistic to its existence. And in order to keep that party from controlling labour's destiny, it has to turn to a centrist party that has embraced neo-liberal economics and austerity … but at least does not [seek] to attack the institution of collective bargaining."
In Wisconsin and Indiana, GOP governors have all but eliminated collective bargaining in the public sector and made payment of union dues optional. Other Republican governors are seeking to emulate them.
Mr. Emanuel courted labour when he ran the successful campaign that gave Democrats a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2006. But shortly after his 2011 election as mayor, he turned on his labour allies in a bid to fix Chicago's public schools.
The plan involves extending the school day by one hour starting this fall and instituting tougher teacher evaluations. To curb costs, the Emanuel-appointed school board rescinded a 4-per-cent salary increase for 2012 that had been part of the existing contract.
Now, the teachers union is seeking a 30-per-cent salary increase over five years to compensate for longer days. All the city has offered is a 2-per-cent increase in the first two years of a five-year contract.
Members of the Chicago Teachers Union finished voting on Friday and the results of their strike vote could be released as early as Monday. Without a settlement, teachers could walk off the job just as classes are set to resume in September.
In other words, just when Mr. Emanuel's former boss will most need union help.