Mayor Rahm Emanuel bore the brunt of criticism from angry teachers who filled the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday to make clear their unhappiness with the administration's efforts to overhaul public education in Chicago.
The crowd of nearly 4,000 teachers, almost all wearing red union T-shirts, erupted in shouts of "fight" and "strike" when Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis asked rhetorically, "So why are we here?"
"He's lost touch with reality," Harper High School teacher John Thuet said of Emanuel before the rally. "I feel like we're getting walked on. They're extending our hours, not giving us raises. And if we don't stop it now, I don't know when it will stop."
Outside the theater, a crowd of about 1,000, teachers, parents and members of other unions gathered in Congress Plaza chanting, "Stand up. Fight back."
The rally, which brought in state and national education labor leaders, was staged amid ongoing contract talks between the CTU and Chicago Public Schools. The positions of both sides are being considered by a three-member panel that will issue its findings in mid-July, one of several steps that must be taken before teachers can walk out under a state law passed last year.
"You're in the midst of a great fight," Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery told the crowd. "You may not avoid this fight that the mayor wants." American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten promised to "come back every time you need me to."
Speaking at a news conference earlier Wednesday, Emanuel, whose newly appointed school board cut teacher raises as one of its first acts, said teachers deserved more money.
"Chicago teachers deserve a pay raise," Emanuel said. "They work very hard. They deserve a pay raise. Chicago school children do not deserve a strike. We are working with an independent arbitrator to ensure that we achieve both of those goals, and we're committed to that process."
But inside the Auditorium, teachers angry about being forced to work a longer day without additional compensation booed loudly whenever Emanuel's name was mentioned. Lewis again told the story of how the mayor "cussed her out" when she questioned him over his proposal for a longer day last fall.
When the narrator in a video shown on a large screen asked if Emanuel was "anti-teacher," the crowd shouted "Yeah!"
According to the union, CPS has offered teachers a 2 percent raise next year and no salary increase in the second year. After that, a system of merit pay would be implemented.
The union has asked for a compounded 30 percent salary increase over two years, which it says is fair for teachers working a longer school day and teaching a more rigorous curriculum.
Sandy Lucas, who has taught in CPS for 19 years, said the mayor isn't listening to teachers who are calling for smaller class sizes and more arts and foreign language classes.
"He needs to listen," Lucas said. "He's not looking at what the children need. He's not looking to support us to give children what they need. Something has to impact people to really listen."
Union officials also lashed out against two national education reform groups, Stand for Children and Democrats for Education Reform, that have organized in Chicago to back Emanuel's agenda.
Before Wednesday's Chicago school board meeting, Stand for Children's Chicago director, Juan Jose Gonzalez, said the union's poll of members over board proposals was "disingenuous."
Teachers at the rally said they don't want to strike, but some feel they're being forced into a walkout.
"Who wants a strike? Nobody. But if it has to be done it has to be done," said Mildred Gomez, a nine-year CPS veteran who has been putting aside money in case there is a strike . "We just want our fair share. If you are going to work longer, you (should be) paid for it."
After the rally, Lewis and the Rev. Jesse Jacksonlinked arms and led the teachers on a march that started on Michigan Avenue and proceeded down Loop streets with a police escort.