Chicago teachers strike escalates into PR conflict

Both sides are battling to a draw as the city’s first teachers strike in 25 years goes into its second day.

In Chicago, there’s an all-out PR war taking place between two imposing factions: City Hall and the public school teachers.

On Sunday evening, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) walked out on negotiations after both sides failed to reach agreement on several key contract issues. It is the city’s first teachers strike in 25 years, leaving 350,000 students with at least one unscheduled day off and working parents to find childcare.

By Monday, the conflict became a matter of swaying public opinion. Several Chicago area PR professionals agreed that both sides are roughly even in terms of their public relations efforts thus far.

“I think they’re both playing their cards right,” Jamie Izaks, president of All Points Public Relations, told PR Daily. “It’s remarkable how savvy both sides are at this.”

On Monday morning, teachers established picket lines outside of their schools before thousands of them gathered in downtown Chicago to march alongside parents and other supporters. They vowed to stick together until a fair contract is reached.

“[The union] has a good sense of what the media wants,” said Wes Bleed, vice president of Mack Communications in Naperville, Ill., and former WGN radio anchor. “They know how to tell their story. At the rallies, they’re getting big numbers. They’re organized.”

While teachers’ marched, the mayor held a press conference at one of the churches where students can gather during the strike.

“Don’t take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me,” Emanuel said while standing in front of a group of children—a savvy PR move on his part, according to Thom Serafin, CEO of Serafin and Associates in Chicago.

Indeed, the sometimes abrasive Emanuel, who’s known to square off with reporters, seems to be gaining points with the public.

“I think he’s becoming a little more of a sympathetic character in this whole thing,” said Bleed, who also noted one failing of the mayor. “I don’t think he did a great job of explaining why they couldn’t come to terms.”

The two sides have failed to agree on several key issues, including job security, teacher evaluations, and salary and benefits. Teachers requested a large raise in the first year of their contract due to a longer school that Emanuel imposed.

Both sides can agree on one thing, however: They’re acting in the best interest of the students—and that’s what they want the public to know.

“Their actions are not necessarily reflecting that,” Izaks said. “But I think they’ve been coached very well about what they’ve been saying.”

No matter how coached they are, Gil Rudawsky, a communications professional in Denver, said there will be no winners in this conflict.

“The school district is the bad guy for imposing unrealistic standards on teacher performance and limiting pay,” said Rudawsky, who heads up the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media. “And the teachers union is being blamed for having unrealistic expectations, and causing 350,000 kids to miss school.”

According to Rudawsky, both sides need to acknowledge that their inability to reach a compromise is deeply affecting the city, which has already suffered through a violent summer.

“The issue is much bigger than them, and if the issue extends much longer, you can bet they will be pressured to reach a truce that neither side will be happy with,” he said.

With the national and even international media training its attention upon the city, the matter could have implications on this year’s presidential election. Emanuel served as President Obama’s chief of staff from 2008 to 2010 and is among the president’s biggest supporters.

“The stakes are very high, not only for the union, for [Chicago Public Schools], for the kids, but also politically for Mayor Emanuel, and ultimately for the Democrats and President Obama,” Bleed said.

The disagreement could play into the Republicans’ argument that spending is out of control, and could upset the Democrats’ tightrope act with unions, he explained.

“They need labor support, they don’t need this strike.”

Negotiations between teachers and the city continued on Monday, although nothing had been agreed upon at the time this story was published.

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