(Newsroom America) -- Tens of thousands of Chicago teachers walked out on strike Tuesday, idling 400,000 students and forcing Mayor Rahm Emanuel to stop raising money for President Obama's reelection campaign so he can devote his attention to the crisis.
Tension from months of unproductive negotiations spilled into the open Monday night when the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, called a work stoppage in the nation's third-largest school district, Bloomberg News reported.
Teachers' contracts expired in June and subsequent negotiations to try to hammer out a new agreement broke down over health benefits and job security.
Around 5 p.m. local time, thousands of strike supporters assembled at the district's headquarters in the Loop business district, many waving placards and chanting their support as talks with the union, which represents some 26,000 teachers and other workers, were ongoing.
In trying to work out a compromise, Emanual appealed to the unions' sense of responsibility to the students.
"Don’t take it out on the kids of Chicago if you have a problem with me," Emanuel said at a local church that runs a day care center.
The strike leaves Emanuel, a Democrat and former Obama chief of staff, caught between competing interests. Unions have been staunch supporters of Democrats for years and continue to pour our support for Obama's struggling reelection campaign. They are considered a crucial constituency.
"At the same time, some of Emanuel’s wealthiest supporters have pushed for changes to the city’s education system," Bloomberg reported. "They include Penny Pritzker, a Board of Education member who is part of a Chicago real-estate dynasty, and Bruce Rauner, who is chairman of GTCR Rauner LLC, which manages equity investments."
From far, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney criticized union officials in Obama's home city.
"Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet," Romney said in an emailed statement.
The union is also demanding more pay, orginially seeking a 29-percent increase over 24 months; the school board, however, countered with 2-percent per year for the next four years.
Emanuel had delivered on a campaign promise to lengthen the school day and year, but he also stripped teachers of a negotiated 4 percent pay increase, leading union leaders to call him a bully. Emanuel controls the district's operation, which is facing a $700 million deficit.
© 2012 Newsroom America.