Emanuel Asks Court to Stop Teacher Strike as Union Balks

Emanuel Seeking Injunction as Teachers Push Strike to Week 2
Striking Chicago public school teachers and their supporters march down Michigan Avenue in Chicago, Illinois on September 13, 2012. Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The surprise rejection by Chicago teacher-union delegates of the labor contract their leaders approved sent the city’s school strike into a second week and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to state court.

The mayor of the third-largest U.S. city today sought a court order to force educators back into classrooms. Yesterday’s decision by the union to continue Chicago’s first public-school strike in a quarter century means 350,000 students will be out of class for at least a sixth day.

“I will not stand by while the children of Chicago are played as pawns in an internal dispute within a union,” Emanuel said last night in a statement.

The strike that began Sept. 10 is illegal under an Illinois law that prohibits the union from striking over noneconomic issues “such as layoff and recall rights, class size, and length of the school day and school year,” according to the filing by Chicago’s Board of Education in Cook County Circuit Court. A hearing was set for Sept. 19 before Judge Peter Flynn.

The judge may deny the city’s bid for an injunction because the motion shouldn’t have been filed directly with the court, according to Professor Martin Malin of the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Labor Board

Unfair labor practices are the jurisdiction of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which has the power to seek an injunction in court, Malin said.

State law “requires the board of education to go to the labor relations board,” according to Malin, director of the law school’s Institute for Law and the Workplace. The law provides an exception for filing with the circuit court if there is a “clear and present danger,” he said. The board of education said the strike posed just such a threat, citing the loss of school meals and the “risk of violence” to students when not in school.

“This is a stretch,” Malin said in a phone interview. “Clear-and-present-danger injunctions are rare.”

The city is seeking an injunction because “we believe our kids should be in the classroom,” Robyn Ziegler, a spokeswoman for Emanuel, said in an interview.

‘Vindictive Act’

The union called the injunction bid a “spur-of-the-moment decision” and a “vindictive act” by Emanuel.

“The Chicago Teachers Union is striking over mandatory subjects of bargaining such as compensation, evaluation procedures and the conditions within our classrooms,” Stephanie Gadlin, a spokeswoman for the union, said in a statement posted on its website. “If this was an illegal strike the Chicago Public Schools would have sought injunctive relief on day one.”

Two days after Karen Lewis, president of the 30,000-member Chicago Teachers Union, said she hoped that classes would resume today, the organization’s House of Delegates voted to continue the walkout while it studied the proposed employment contract from the school board, which is controlled by Emanuel.

Seeking to maintain the support of parents, teachers on picket lines handed out fliers today that asked for patience.

“We understand that our work stoppage has created disruption and uncertainty in the lives of your children and families,” it read. “Please trust that we are doing everything we can to encourage a speedy conclusion to our contract talks.”

Meeting Tomorrow

The delegates aren’t scheduled to meet again until tomorrow. Barring an order reopening schools, the earliest classes could resume is the following day, Lewis said.

The decision by the union’s delegates, a body that has the exclusive authority to cease or extend a strike, came after Lewis said Sept. 14 that she was “very comfortable” with the terms of a teacher-evaluation procedure that was a key point of contention. She said the language probably would “assuage” the concerns of union members.

Lewis backtracked after the meeting yesterday at a south side union hall.

“This is not a good deal by any stretch of the imagination,” she said.

Chicago Public Schools issued details of the contract about 90 minutes before the delegates voted. The proposed three-year contract with an option for a fourth stated that “student growth” will account for 25 percent of a teacher’s evaluation in the first two years of the pact, and 30 percent in the third.

Teacher Evaluations

A “student survey will be piloted” in the second year and would contribute to 10 percent of the teacher evaluation, according to the school system. The contract would provide a 16 percent pay increase over four years.

The contract carried a price tag of about $74 million for each year, for a total of $295 million over four years. The district faces a 2013 budget deficit of $1 billion.

The strike has been the most public opposition to Emanuel since the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama took office 16 months ago with a pledge to restructure the city’s operations. Lowering labor costs is central to Emanuel’s initiatives.

The teachers had been negotiating with the mayor since November over his efforts to lengthen the school day and year, as well as the board’s decision to cancel a 4 percent pay increase.

The school day was extended this year to 7 hours from 5 hours and 45 minutes at elementary schools, and to 7 1/2 hours from 7 hours at most high schools. The school year was lengthened to 180 days, from 170, which had been one of the country’s shortest.

In the last such Chicago teachers strike, in 1987, union members walked out for four weeks.

The lawsuit is Board of Education of the City of Chicago v. Chicago Teachers Union, 2012-CH-35003, Circuit Court, Cook County, Illinois (Chicago).

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