Palatine workers have right to strike, but that doesn’t include right to continued benefits

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
October 21, 2017

Palatine workers have right to strike, but that doesn’t include right to continued benefits

Under Illinois law, government employees can choose to walk out on strike – but it carries risks. Striking workers give up wages and benefit contributions – and maybe even their jobs – when they walk out.

Hundreds of workers in Palatine-area District 15 – including school nurses, sign language interpreters and others – walked out on strike on Oct. 16.

Now the union representing those workers claims the striking workers should still be receiving health care benefits courtesy of the district. In other words, the union wants the right to strike, but it doesn’t want any of the repercussions.

But that isn’t how the law works in Illinois. And if the union failed to alert its members of the risks of going on strike, the blame falls on the union.

The union left parents and students in the lurch

More than 12,000 elementary students in Palatine-area District 15 were left without school nurses, sign language interpreters and other important school workers on Oct. 16.

That’s because the Educational Support Personnel Association, or ESPA, which represents 454 workers in the district, walked out on strike.

Since then, a Cook County judge ordered some of the striking Palatine Township Elementary District 15 support workers to return to work immediately. The judge ruled the absence of 168 of the more than 450 workers on strike constituted a public safety risk, and thus those 168 workers did not have the power to strike under Illinois’ Educational Labor Relations Act.

But the remaining workers are still on strike.

Union power already stacks the deck against Illinoisans

The ability to strike is a powerful tool. When a government worker union in Illinois doesn’t get its way in negotiations, it can threaten to shut down state and local governments or schools – and the services residents need and pay for through tax dollars – in order to have its demands met.

Residents have no similar tools.

A school district union can walk out on parents and students – but the parents and students can do nothing about it.

A state worker union can walk out on children and families counting on government services – but those children and families can do nothing about it.

That means government worker unions hold a disproportionate share of the power when it comes to negotiations. They can make demands and walk out if those demands are not met.

As demonstrated by what’s going on in District 15, that leaves residents’ day-to-day lives – and the ability to utilize government services – under the control of government worker unions.

Significantly, none of Illinois’ neighbors give that sort of power to unions. In Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana and Michigan, most or all government workers are prohibited from going on strike.

Illinois stands alone in the region as the only state giving an affirmative right to government workers to walk out on the job.

The union wants even more power and no risks

Going on strike is not without short- and long-term risks for workers.

In the short term, union members who go on strike are out of work – and unpaid – for an indefinite period of time.

But lost wages aren’t the only thing at risk. A government employer – such as District 15 – is not bound to continue providing its portion of employees’ benefits. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, the district claims it communicated to workers before the strike that walking out could result in a loss of salary and benefits.

In the long term, a striking worker may not have a job to return to once the strike is over. Under Illinois law, the employer is free to replace striking workers. The striking workers will not automatically get their jobs back once the strike is over. If there is no appropriate vacancy in an employee’s job category, he or she could be out of work indefinitely.

If workers were guaranteed salary and benefits while on strike and their same jobs back on return, the public would be at the complete whim of government worker unions at all times. Unions could call strikes without repercussions for workers, while inflicting great harm on residents.

Now the ESPA appears to want even more power. It wants the right to strike while still receiving benefits.

If the union misled its members into thinking they could go on strike and maintain all benefits, the fault lies with the union for failing to inform its members of the risks.

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