Updated 09/03/12 - 5:01 p.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) -- With a strike deadline now a week away, thousands of Chicago Public Schools teachers and their supporters gathered in Daley Plaza on Monday to take their case for a new contract to the public.
WBBM Newsradio's Nancy Harty reports Daley Plaza was a sea of red shirts as thousands of teachers, parents, students, and union workers gathered to support the Chicago Teachers Union amid continuing contract talks with the Chicago Public Schools.
As teachers soaked in the support of other public employee unions at the rally, the rhetoric turned more rancorous, taking on the flavor of a one-on-one battle between a fiery union president and a strong-willed mayor.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio's Nancy Harty Reports
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"We all came together to stop the juggernaut that doesn't care about our children, doesn't know what we do, and has written off 25 percent of our children," Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told the crowd Monday morning.
CBS 2's Derrick Blakley reports Lewis again accused Emanuel of telling her in their first private meeting last year that 25 percent of children who attend CPS will never amount to anything, and he wasn't going to throw resources at them.
The mayor has said Lewis' accusation, which she first made in February, is "totally false."
"He's a liar ... and a bully," Lewis told the crowd at Monday's rally.
Still, Lewis said the dispute between herself and Emanuel is not personal.
"This is about 26,000 people working every single day," Lewis said.
Emanuel likewise said the ongoing contract dispute is not personal.
The union has set Sept. 10 as a strike date, if no contract deal is reached by then.
Asked if he believes there won't be a strike, Emanuel said, "My view is, if we focus on what we need to, there's no need to."
"The negotiations are for the negotiations table. The classroom is for the education of our children. And we'll work through all the issues. That's not a problem," the mayor said.
As for the apparently toxic atmosphere between the two sides, Lewis said, "The atmosphere is toxic in the schools. This is where the problem is. I'm not going to sit here and say everything is fine."
Middle school teacher Tressa McMillan said, "I want the public to know that the teachers absolutely do not want to go on strike. The proposals that have been made by the board are unacceptable ... because they take the working conditions and the working relationship between the Chicago teachers and the board back. As far as the history of teaching goes in this city, the temperament and the tone is just so disrespectful for teachers."
McMillan, who has been teaching for 23 years, said, "I would like teaching to be raised to the level of respect that it used to have, and I want the public to know that teachers, they have a passion for what they do. They're constantly working for the benefit of children. The longer day is not an issue for us. Most of us stay in our buildings 10 hours a day anyway."
Other Chicago labor leaders backed the teachers' threat to shut down the schools, while taking aim at the mayor.
Matt Brandon, secretary-treasurer of Service Employees International Union Local 73, said, Emanuel "came to town rolling over unions. He came to town with a message machine that portrayed us in the press as greedy union workers, as greedy union bosses."
Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields said, "We are proud public servants. We are not indentured servants."
American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 President Henry Bayer said other public employees have been closely watching negotiations between teachers and the Emanuel administration.
"What they have in store for the teachers, they have in store for the rest of us," Bayer said.
Mack Julion, president of the Chicago branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers, elicited boos when he said his union backed Rahm Emanuel in the 2011 mayoral election.
"This is not what we supported," he shouted to the crowd.
After the rally, teachers mached past City Hall, and then to Chicago Public Schools headquarters at 125 S. Clark St.
Some carried signs that said "Fair Contract Now" or "Kindergartners have better listening skills than Mayor Emanuel."
Despite the rancor, Lewis maintains hope a fair compromise can be reached to avoid a strike.
"I am extremely optimistic … because I'm seeing movement that they're actually working to take care of some of the issues that are on the table."
Negotiators were taking the day off on Monday, but contract talks resume Tuesday.
Lewis said progress is being made on a number of small issues, but the bigger ones – like teacher pay – still haven't been tackled.
Some of the big issues that have made negotiations difficult are pay hikes, teacher evaluations, and job security. The union wants to make sure teachers who have been laid off are first in line for new jobs.
It's a big deal, because next year CPS plans to consolidate and close several schools.
Meantime, the Chicago Republican Party has called on Emanuel to cancel his Tuesday speech at the Democratic National Convention, and stay home to focus on contract talks, the potential teachers strike, and the city's continuing gun violence problems.
The mayor's office said Monday he was cutting short his trip to the DNC, but insisted the decision had nothing to do with the possible teachers strike. Originally, the mayor planned to be in Charlotte from Tuesday through Friday. Now he will return late Wednesday and on Thursday will host a DNC watch party for Obama campaign staffers who cannot make the trip.
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