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Legality of Chicago Teacher Strikes

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on April 07, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Last Friday, thousands of teachers took to the Chicago streets, demanding a new contract and an overhaul of the city's school funding system. Republican Governor Bruce Rauner called the strike illegal, while Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis accused Rauner of trying to destroy the city's schools.

The strike only lasted a day, but affected some 400 students, highlighting the unique impacts of teacher strikes and the legal rules and agreements that govern them.

No Contract, No Class

Chicago teachers have been working without a contract since last July, and the teachers' union and the city were unable to agree to a new contract in February. As with most collectively bargained employment agreements, that contract would presumably cover when walkouts of this kind are permitted, but the rules are less clear now that the contract is expired.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) govern the relationship between employers, employees, and labor unions, and, for the most part, protect the right of employees to strike. But participation in an unlawful strike -- like those that violate a no-strike clause in an employment contract -- could get an employee fired. Generally speaking, employment contracts for essential personnel like police officers and firefighters contain explicit no-strike clauses.

Lightning Strikes Twice

If all of this sounds familiar, it is -- Chicago teachers went on strike four years ago, and many of the issues and players are the same. Then, as now, the teachers were out of contract. Then, as now, they were unhappy with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. And then, as now, the city's Board of Education filed to block the strike.

That 2012 strike lasted eight days, which makes last week's action appear to be a mere blip on the school calendar. Governor Rauner released a statement saying, "It's shameful that Chicago's children are the victims in this raw display of political power." We agree, though we're not convinced on which display he's referring to -- the teacher strike or his own attempt to take over the Chicago Public School system.

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