Chicago teachers strike: Why Rahm Emanuel's court gambit may backfire

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools on Monday asked a court for a temporary injunction that would end the teachers strike immediately. They are taking a calculated risk that the move won't actually slow resolution of the conflict.

M. Spencer Green/AP
Michael Grant, a parent of a Chicago public school student, is reflected in the glasses of teacher Yasman Vaughn as a handful of teachers picket outside Shoop Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Sept. 17, as a strike by Chicago Teachers Union members heads into its second week. Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he will seek a court order to force the city's teachers back into the classroom.

By turning to the courts to try to end the Chicago teachers strike, now in its second week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is taking a calculated risk that the public will be on his side and that the move won't actually slow the resolution of the city's battle with the union.

The soonest the courts will take up the matter, however, is Wednesday, according to Cook County Circuit Court Judge Peter Flynn, who on Monday afternoon denied an immediate hearing of the city's request for a preliminary injunction that would end the strike immediately. That means students attending Chicago Public Schools are certain to be out of school Tuesday and perhaps longer.

The Chicago Public Schools, under the directive of Mayor Emanuel, had filed a complaint earlier Monday asking the court for a temporary restraining order and for the injunction, on the grounds that the strike is illegal under state law and presents “a clear and present danger to public health and safety,” according to court documents.

The Chicago Teachers Union released a statement Monday that described Emanuel’s actions as “vindictive” and an “attempt to thwart our democratic process.”

The court strategy could backfire by aggravating the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), whose delegates are currently considering the terms of a tentative contract. 

“Both sides are in the middle of negotiations, where you are building a relationship of trust. What the mayor is trying to do is put his thumb on the scale … he’s moving a little too quickly," says Randolph McLaughlin, a labor lawyer and a professor at Pace University Law School in White Plains, N.Y. "If there is a division within the union that sees this as a heavy-handed tactic, it may push the union to a more aggressive position by continuing to strike, and that’s not very helpful.” 

Emanuel has long had the option to ask the the court to intervene and end the strike, but he paused in the hope of settling the contract dispute at the negotiating table, say labor analysts. One likely reason for the pause was political: Media coverage of teachers being forced back to the classroom, or facing fines or jail time, would not help President Obama, Emanuel's former boss, for the November election.

But that changed late Sunday, when the teachers' union announced it had decided to extend the strike at least two more days to give delegates more time to review a contract agreement reached late Friday.

The announcement came as a surprise. Union leaders and Chicago Public Schools officials released statements over the weekend that children would most likely be back in school Monday. According to both sides, language in the contract just needed to be finalized over the weekend, resulting in a House of Delegates vote late Sunday afternoon.

That didn’t happen. Media accounts suggest internal strife within certain union factions. At a rally Monday, union president Karen Lewis said she was “tired of the lies and name-calling and vilification of the people who do the work every single day to make the difference in our children in Chicago’s lives.”

Emanuel released a statement Sunday that explained he would now turn to the courts, saying he “will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union.” He added that the union should allow school to proceed while it works out the details in formalizing the contract. He said he was taking the legal step so that children would not be in danger of falling further behind in their studies, a theme Emanuel has emphasized since the strike began Sept. 9. 

Which direction the court will take regarding the school district's complaint will depend on its interpretation of what the strike is about. Emanuel says the strike is illegal because the Illinois Labor Relations Act says unions can strike over policy matters affecting wages and benefits, but that this strike is essentially about teacher evaluations, layoff and recall policies, and the length of the school day and year. Union representatives acknowledge that wages are not the primary issue in the strike but say economic issues are connected to their frustrations over hiring policies and evaluations.

The contract agreement reached Friday provides teachers with a base salary raise of 3 percent in the first year and 2 percent in each of the next two years. If the contract is extended a fourth year, teachers would receive a 3 percent raise. Teachers are eligible for raises for their years of experience and master’s degrees. The Chicago Public Schools says raises would be 17.6 percent on average over four years.

The maximum salary for a Chicago Public Schools teacher under the current contract is $92,227. That is 19 percent higher than the average maximum salary – $77,531 – for a teacher in the 50 largest school districts in the US, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.

For the court to grant an injunction barring the strike, the school district must prove that “the issues of economics are resolvable … so even though there are economic issues out there, they are not significant and the union is using the strike to get noneconomic gains,” says John Hancock, a Detroit-based lawyer who specializes in employment law.

Mr. Hancock, who has represented several Michigan school districts over 30 years, says he expects Judge Flynn to force both sides back to the table to negotiate around the clock for a resolution. As it stands, the Chicago school district may have a difficult time proving that every economic issue is resolved, he says.

“That’s going to be a tough burden if they have not resolved all the wages. The fact is, [both sides are] close, but the union has the right to strike over a nickel,” says Hancock.

The union decision to prolong the strike keeps families in limbo concerning when their children will return to school. Many parents support the teachers but are frustrated that they know little about the remaining sticking points.

Some parents are also not happy about being caught off guard by the strike's timing. The original strike announcement came at 10 p.m. on a Sunday, which meant parents were scrambling early Monday morning to make alternative care arrangements for their children. This weekend’s announcement came earlier Sunday, but after two days in which both sides had signaled that an end of the strike was imminent.

“I’m finding myself divided. We have really great teachers at my sons’ school, and I want them to have a fair contact,” says Garvey Madden, a father of two boys in the third and first grades at O.A. Thorp Scholastic Academy.

Mr. Madden was “very disappointed the kids weren’t back in school” Monday but says it’s worth it if it means there won’t be a rebound strike later in the school year. “I want them to get it right the first time because I don’t want them to go back to school and then have a strike later in the month if the union does not accept the contract,” he says.

He says his sons are getting bored not being in school, which had started the week before the union declared a strike.

“If they clear it up in the next two days, that’s fine. If [the strike] goes longer than that, it’s pushing it,” he says. 

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