CPS files charges against CTU for ‘illegal’ strike

Jeffrey Schwab

Jeffrey Schwab is a senior attorney with the Liberty Justice Center.

Jeffrey Schwab
April 1, 2016

CPS files charges against CTU for ‘illegal’ strike

The union’s one-day strike is an illegal, aggressive political power play, and its attempt to coerce its members to participate violates its own constitution. Here’s a breakdown of the timeline, the law and the political statement the union is making.

UPDATE: On April 1, Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, filed a complaint with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board alleging that the one-day strike conducted April 1 by the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, is illegal. CPS is seeking an injunction that would prevent CTU from striking until and unless all the conditions of Illinois law have been met. CPS is also seeking compensation for the costs to taxpayers for the strike, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs. 

The Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, issued a warning to its members that anyone who defies the April 1 “Day of Action” strike by showing up to school will face expulsion from the union. But CTU’s legal basis for the strike is contrary to Illinois law and the union’s own constitution – therefore CTU’s threats to expel members who go to school on April 1 are entirely unjustified.

Timeline: Leading up to the strike

On March 23, CTU’s House of Delegates voted in favor of a one-day strike on April 1. However, Illinois law does not allow CTU to strike as soon as April 1. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act provides that CTU may not strike unless certain conditions are met. One of those conditions is that if the parties meet with a fact-finding panel during collective-bargaining negotiations – as CTU and CPS have done – a strike may not take place until 30 days after the panel has issued its report. The panel has not yet issued a report.

Illinois law also requires at least three-fourths of CTU members to have voted to authorize the strike. But CTU never took a vote of all of its members regarding the one-day strike. Only CTU’s House of Delegates voted on the April 1 strike. The CTU constitution similarly requires a direct vote of the regular members in order to strike and states that a vote by the House of Delegates to authorize a strike is merely advisory.

CTU has been threatening a one-day strike to be held on April 1 since February. Initially, the strike was to be in response to a plan by Chicago Public Schools, or CPS, to cancel the 7 percent pension pickups that CPS has been making on behalf of teachers since 1981. CTU deemed this measure an unfair labor practice in violation of Illinois law.

After CPS backed down on its plan to cancel the pension pickups, however, CTU claimed that the basis of the strike was CPS’ freeze of automatic “step and lane” salary increases, which CPS stopped paying in September after the most recent bargaining agreement expired.

Why the strike is illegal

CTU has conceded that a strike over contract negotiations would be illegal, but claims that the April 1 strike is legal because it is not about the contract, but an unfair labor practice.

CTU is incorrect.

First, Illinois law does not differentiate between the reasons for a strike, it simply provides a set of conditions that must always be met in order for a union to strike. CTU has not met all of those conditions, so under Illinois law, the strike is illegal.

Second, whether teachers should receive step-and-lane salary increases is a contract issue in the ongoing collective-bargaining negotiations between CPS and CTU.

When CTU brought an unfair labor practice claim before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, or IELRB, challenging the freeze of step-and-lane raises, the board unanimously rejected CTU’s request for an injunction to require CPS to pay those salary increases. Board Chairwoman Andrea Waintroob explained: “For us to force the employer to pay lanes and steps, when the employer is bargaining to freeze lanes and steps, would really put a poison pill into the negotiating process.”

CTU President Karen Lewis dismisses the decision, calling the IELRB a “Rauner-stacked board.” However, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed just three of the five members of the IELRB, and the decision against CTU was unanimous. In addition, one of Rauner’s appointments, Lynne Sered, was originally appointed to the IELRB by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and re-appointed by former Gov. Pat Quinn.

The fact that CTU has a process available to it to pursue unfair labor practice claims against CPS shows exactly why CTU’s justification for a strike makes no sense. Allowing CTU to strike at the same time it pursues a claim for an unfair labor practice would allow CTU to strike virtually any time it wanted, since union leadership could always come up with some action by CPS that it claims is an unfair labor practice, justified or not. And even though CTU’s attempt to get an injunction failed before the Board, CTU can still pursue an unfair labor practice charge through the administrative trial process like it is doing now.

A political statement

CTU’s April 1 strike appears to have very little to do with an unfair labor practice claim regarding step-and-lane raises. Rather, the one-day strike appears to be part of a much larger political statement.

CTU’s website says the strike is a call for “increased revenue for [CPS] and its students, and a direct response to continued attacks and efforts toward union-busting from Gov. Bruce Rauner, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the mayor’s handpicked CPS CEO, Forrest Claypool.”

CTU asserts that the strike will “highlight proposals from the CTU,” including its claim that “[t]he only solution … requires new revenue sources in the form of progressive tax reform that would get the super wealthy (top 5 percent) to pay their fair share in state taxes.” CTU plans to picket at Chicago State University and Northeastern University to protest budget cuts, protest at Mondelez International’s plant on the southwest side and welcome fast food workers protesting for a $15 minimum wage.

Given this agenda, it is not surprising that some teachers plan to go to school instead of participating in the strike. Doing so carries the risk of CTU following through on its threat to kick those that go to school out of the union. Teachers who are expelled from the union lose benefits, including union-provided liability insurance, while still having to pay so-called “fair share fees” for the “benefits” they receive from contract negotiations – an issue that is bound to be relevant even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 4-4 split decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case that challenged the constitutionality of those forced fees.

Can CTU expel its members who do not participate in its strike and instead choose to go to school? Any attempt by CTU to use the procedures under its constitution to expel members who cross the picket line is bound to be countered by an argument that CTU’s constitution also requires a vote of all members in order to authorize a strike, which CTU did not do with respect to the April 1 strike. But whether that challenge will be successful in CTU’s own administrative procedures is unclear.

What is clear is that CTU’s one-day strike on April 1 is illegal under Illinois law and is invalid under CTU’s own constitution.

Ultimately, CTU may not care about whether the strike is legal, betting that the cash-strapped school district will not take legal action against it. Still, taking a position that is contrary both to Illinois law and CTU’s own constitution undermines any claim that it is simply seeking for teachers to be treated fairly. Especially when CTU so callously uses its own constitution as a threat to its members who don’t fall in line, while ignoring its basic requirements allowing those same members a voice in whether to strike in the first place.

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