FAQs: What Chicago teachers should know before going on strike

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
February 2, 2021

FAQs: What Chicago teachers should know before going on strike

Chicago Teachers Union is poised to go on strike for the fourth time in nine years. Here’s what Chicago Public Schools teachers need to know before joining a strike.

Chicago Public Schools teachers are facing a weighty decision: honor the potentially illegal strike and face discipline by the school district, or report to school and face discipline by the Chicago Teachers Union.

Here are answers to commonly asked questions to guide teachers in making the decision that is best for them.

Is the potential CTU strike illegal?

Under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, the pending strike is likely illegal.

That’s because the law lays out a number of factors, several of which have not been met, that must be satisfied before teachers can engage in a strike:

  • Mediation has been used without success
  • The union has given the employer a notice of intent to strike and at least 10 days have elapsed
  • The collective bargaining agreement has expired or been terminated.

Mediation has been requested by the union but not completed; the union hasn’t given the employer an official notice of intent to strike or 10 days’ notice; and there is a collective bargaining agreement in place.

These factors weigh against CTU’s actions.

In fact, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board could determine that refusing to report to work – even if willing to work remotely – is an illegal strike itself, before the union even engages in picketing.

If the strike is illegal, can the district impose penalties on participants?

Chicago Public Schools administrators have already said they will use the “progressive discipline policy” for teachers who do not report to school.

Nothing in Illinois labor laws prohibits a school district from utilizing its discipline policies following an illegal strike.

If a teacher reports to school, can CTU impose penalties? 

CTU has a history of using its internal rules to punish teachers who cross picket lines.

For example:

  • After the 2016 one-day strike, CTU kicked out a member for crossing the line. He was on the hook for paying dues throughout the rest of the year, even though he was no longer considered a member.
  • After the 2019 strike, teachers who reported to work received letters from the union threatening to put them on “trial” for failing to honor the strike.

What’s more, it isn’t uncommon for unions to impose fines for crossing the picket line.

If a CTU member reports to his or her school building, and the strike is later determined to be an illegal strike, can the union still impose a penalty? 

While a court could rule that the union cannot impose punishment if a member crosses a picket line during an illegal strike, that doesn’t mean it will stop CTU from trying.

It certainly hasn’t stopped CTU in the past. Following the one-day strike in 2016, CTU disciplined teacher Joe Ocol for crossing the line. Ocol had gone to work so he could be with his chess team, which later brought home a championship.

CTU didn’t look favorably on Ocol’s loyalty to his students, and it kicked him out of the union.

That strike was later determined to be likely illegal, but Ocol’s punishment remained.

In the end, CTU likely knows members who are disciplined for failing to participate in an illegal strike will feel helpless. Those teachers could potentially file a lawsuit, but that is not likely something they would want to do. And CTU knows that.

If I opt out of the union, can I cross the picket line without fear of CTU discipline?

Once a person opts out of a union, that union has no authority over him or her. A teacher can opt out of the union and report to work, and CTU cannot punish the teacher.

How do I opt out of the union?

Teachers interested in opting out can request assistance and the appropriate paperwork at leavectu.com.

If I opt out of the union, do I retain my benefits?

Teachers can opt out of union membership and retain all benefits provided by CPS in the union contract. Those benefits include, but are not limited to, salary, raises, health care plans and seniority.

In other words, if a benefit is in the contract, it is guaranteed to teachers regardless of union membership.

While CTU requires teachers to pay dues through the year, anyone who opts out now will be considered a nonmember immediately. Dues deductions should stop in August, per communications some teachers reported receiving from the district after opting out.

Teachers interested in opting out can learn more and obtain the appropriate paperwork at leavectu.com.

What about liability insurance and job protection coverage?

Teachers are free to join other associations, many of which provide liability insurance and job protection coverage at a fraction of the cost of union membership.

One example is the Association of American Educators, which is not only the largest non-union educators’ organization in the nation, but also provides liability insurance and job protection coverage to teachers.

That means teachers can keep their jobs, benefits and liability insurance without being members of CTU. 

Can teachers who opt out of the union later change their minds? 

Most unions allow people to become members at any time, although some unions impose time restrictions on when a new member can participate in some union activities, such as being a delegate or local representative.

But typically, unions are more than happy to have people paying dues again.

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