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Chicago teachers strike: Illegal under Illinois law?

Illinois state law could bar teachers from striking on anything except pay and benefits, but the Chicago teachers strike is also about class size, job security, and teacher evaluations. Mayor Rahm Emanuel can take the union to court – but at a risk.

By Staff writer / September 12, 2012

A large group of public school teachers rally at John Marshall Metropolitan High School on Wednesday in West Chicago. Teachers walked off the job Monday for the first time in 25 years over issues that include pay raises, classroom conditions, job security, and teacher evaluations.

Sitthixay Ditthavong/AP

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Chicago

With the Chicago teacher’s strike entering its third day, both sides appear determined to settle matters behind closed doors and not in a courtroom, even though the city has authority to take the fight there – though at significant political risk, legal experts say.

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Although untested in the courts, a provision added to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act last year could prohibit teachers from striking on all matters except compensation involving pay and benefits. The walkout, which started Monday, appears to be about a broad range of issues, many of which have little to do with wages.

Chicago Teachers Union representatives have acknowledged that their gripes with the city are not necessarily financial. "What I would say about the economics of this thing is that that isn’t the main issue,” Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey told reporters late Sunday.

Indeed Chicago teachers, on average, are paid more than most others in the state, according to a 2012 report by Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The average public teacher salary in Chicago is $74,236, compared with a state average of $64,978. As of Sunday, the Chicago Public Schools district offered teachers a 16 percent raise over four years. On Sunday, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said the offer was “not far apart” from what the union was seeking.

So if the strike is not strictly about compensation, it may be an illegal action according to state law, which even the union recognizes. “While new Illinois law prohibits us from striking over the recall of laid-off teachers and compensation for a longer school year, we do not intend to sign an agreement until these matters are addressed,” the union said in a statement released Sunday.

Representatives from the Chicago Teachers Union would not return requests for comment Wednesday.

Another tool that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, has at his ready is a provision in state law that says if a teacher strike “is or has become a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the public,” the mayor can seek a court injunction to stop it. However, this option seems unlikely, because the provision does not cover public welfare, which would be more germane for the strike, says Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Illinois Institute of Chicago.

So far, the city is not pursuing the possible illegality of the strike, but instead is taking its case to the public, describing the union as conducting a “strike of choice.” Sarah Hamilton, communications director for Mayor Emanuel, says his administration’s “focus is getting kids back in the classroom learning from their teachers, and we believe this is best resolved at the negotiating table, not in front of a judge.”

On Tuesday, Emanuel said the two primary issues in the negotiations – teacher evaluations and teacher rehiring – are legally “non-strikeable.”

Emanuel’s comments “may be setting things up, particularly if the strike is lengthy, for him to appeal to the Legislature to further restrict [the union’s] right to strike, perhaps by requiring additional third-party intervention or restricting the subject over which a union may strike,” says Mr. Malin.

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