Just over 400,000 Chicago-area students discovered that they had the day off on April 1, and it was no prank.
Their teachers had taken to the streets to demand new contracts and an overhaul of the city’s school funding system. The Chicago Public Schools’ decision to abruptly end merit-based pay increases, which had been included in the teachers’ previous contracts, took effect in June 2015.
Chicago’s teachers have been working without contracts since then, but they’re fed up.
So was the strike legal? There are no contracts in place, so it’s a tough call.
With most collectively bargained employment agreements, the contract covers specific terms about when and under what circumstances a “walkout” is allowed.
The National Labor Relations Board typically mediates relationships between employers, employees and labor unions, and the organization attempts to uphold employees’ rights to strike. However, participation in an unlawful strike—including those that violate a no-strike clause in an employment contract, could serve as grounds for termination.
No-strike clauses are most common in agreements where the rights of “essential personnel” such as police officers or firefighters are concerned. Though the absence of a contract agreement between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS makes this irrelevant, Illinois state law imposes strict limitations on teacher’s strikes.
A range of issues from class size to job security and teacher evaluations are also on the table as part of the strike. Though still untested in the courts, a provision added last year to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act would prohibit teachers from striking on any matters except those involving pay and benefits.
Much like the provisions built into contractual no-strike clauses for essential personnel, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has at his disposal an instrument of state law which states that if a teacher strike “is or has become a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the public,” he may seek a court injunction to stop it. However, the results of a teacher strike would more than likely fall under the guise of public welfare, which is not explicitly covered by last year’s provision.
The CTU is relying on a 60-year-old Supreme Court decision that, according to the union’s lawyers, states that private sector workers are not required to comply with strike agreements if an employer has engaged in unfair labor practice.
This is precisely what the CTU is alleging. Their attorneys have said, “The union’s view is that if it’s not striking over the contract, but is instead striking over an unfair labor practice under a Supreme Court decision, it need not fulfill all those statutory requirements for a strike before engaging in an unfair labor practice strike.”
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