Why Chicago schools say a possible teachers strike is illegal

The Chicago teachers union has called for a strike on April 1. But the city school department says a strike would be illegal under Illinois law.

M. Spencer Green/AP/File
Chicago public school teacher Michelle Harton walks a picket line outside Morgan Park High School in Chicago, Sept. 11, 2012, on the second day of a strike in the nation's third-largest school district. The Chicago Teachers Union has called for a walkout on April that the district calls illegal.

The union representing Chicago public school teachers is planning to go on strike April 1, but the school department CEO insists school must go on and has called the strike illegal.

The strike aims to bring awareness to the district's budget problems, but the standoff may instead highlight the legal issues around strikes in the public sector.

Chicago teachers have worked without a contract since June 30, Tina Sfondeles and Lauren FitzPatrick reported for the Chicago Sun-Times. Months of negotiations, including a recent compromise by the school over pension payments, have failed to resolve the contract impasse, even after both sides approved an initial agreement in January.

"I think it’ll be a clear message," Tammie Vinson, a special education teacher at Oscar DePriest Elementary School, told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Based on the current organizing, we’ll shut this city down."

Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool has said the strike is illegal. Under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, teachers may not strike during an official fact-finding phase of the negotiations. Since the district is still in this phase, the strike could be illegal, but the union is betting the school district will not try and enforce a law that has never been tested before.

"The CEO doesn’t know how the courts will rule, should he seek to use money the district doesn’t have on unnecessary legal fees,” union spokeswoman Stephanie Gadlin told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Chicago Public Schools is on the verge of financial collapse ... Instead of threatening educators who are engaging in a historic day of protest to fight for revenue to save our schools, Mr. Claypool should join them in this courageous day of action."

The teachers union tested another part of the same law in 2012, when they violated the provision that allowed strikes only over wages and compensation, Mark Guarino reported for The Christian Science Monitor. In that case, the city tried to take its case to the public, rather than a court, by arguing that students were better served by time spent in the classroom with teachers.

“This can become very serious. The city, to its credit, isn’t pulling that trigger yet," Randolph McLaughlin, a labor attorney and professor at Pace University Law School, told the Monitor at the time. "They realize that once you start jailing teachers, battle lines are drawn and there will be no compromise.”

In this case, the city and school leadership is appealing to teachers, who are divided on whether to strike.

"The leadership of the union should be at the negotiating table. Our kids should be at their desks in the classroom and our teachers should be there giving them the essential education that they chose as a profession – not a job," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told teachers before Wednesday's vote, according to The Associated Press. "We can do and should as a city do both and not take out any disagreements ... on our kids' education."

Mr. Claypool noted many teachers objected to the strike's shifting demands – the vote to strike was 486 for and 124 against – and set up "contingency sites" at schools and parks in the area for students on April 1, the Chicago Tribune reported. He also told teachers they would not be paid if they missed work on April 1 without a valid excuse of illness or emergency.

"Many teachers and schools were in opposition to the action that CTU leadership took yesterday," Claypool said at a news conference, according to the Chicago Tribune. "We welcome our teachers in the school, we want them to come to work that day."

Union President Karen Lewis said the strike aims to send a message to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R), who has been embroiled in a standoff with the Democratic legislature that has cut funding to Chicago Public Schools and left it $1.1 billion in deficit, the AP reported.

The union has been considering a strike for the last month, and the district threatened teacher layoffs by the end of February if contract negotiations continued to stalemate, the Monitor reported.

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