John Gress / Reuters
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (3rd L) leaves a House of Delegates meeting in Chicago September 16, 2012.
Chicago Public Schools filed a request on Monday morning for an injunction against the Chicago Teachers Union, declaring the union's week-old strike illegal and a "clear and present danger to the health and safety of the public." The request for an injunction also argues that the CTU is striking over demands that are not legally strikeable, a claim previously advanced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
In the injunction request, the Board of Education argues that the strike endangers schoolchildren's health and safety by depriving them of access to school nurses, free or reduced price school lunches, and shelter from neighborhood violence. Additionally, says the Board of Education, special needs students will be deprived of access to critical special educations services.
The city of Chicago filed for an injunction after the CTU voted on Sunday to reject a "tentative agreement" and instead continue the strike. On Monday, a Cook County Circuit Court judge declined to hear arguments regarding the possible injunction right away, postponing the issue until at least Wednesday, by which time the strike may have already concluded. The union is expected to meet again on Tuesday night.
Zev Eigen, a professor at Northwestern University's law school and an expert in labor law, told Lean Forward that the court was unlikely to end the strike over health and safety concerns. "This part of the allegation is a weaker claim, because of the fact that there hasn't been a lot of violence on the picket line," he said. Injunctions over public health and safety issues normally end strikes when the strikes themselves are violent, which is not the case in Chicago.
However, "there's not a lot of precedent on how broadly the court should construe the clear and present health and safety risk," said Eigen. He pointed to firefighters—who are not currently legally permitted to strike—as an example of a group who might earn an injunction for even a non-violent strike. A peaceful strike by firefighters, he said, would present a clear and present danger to the public, because there would be nobody available to douse potentially deadly fires.
But in the case of teachers, Eigen said, a similar argument would be overly broad. All teachers strikes prevent students from attending school; if doing so constitutes a "clear and present danger" to their health and safety, said Eigen, "You're essentially making it so the teachers never have the right to strike."
However, he believed that the Board of Education had a stronger case on the question of strikeable issues. "My assessment is it seems like the union is striking on things which, under the [Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act], the city has the right to unilaterally impose as non-strikeable issues," he said. However, he added, there is not a clear precedent for how the court should proceed. "This is not a slam dunk argument on the facts," he said. "It's not clear what the court would do."
In a statement, CTU spokeswoman Stephanie Gardin blasted the injunction request as a "vindictive act instigated by the mayor." "This attempt to thwart our democratic process is consistent with Mayor Emanuel’s bullying behavior toward public school educators," she said.
Eigen called the injunction request a poor strategy which "reduces the likelihood of an amicable resolution," but also leveled the same charge against the strike itself. "I support the CTU," he said. "I support the teachers. I am very sympathetic on a lot of the issues that they're raising. My view is this strike is not the right way to raise them, nor are they on the right side of the law on the injunction issue."