Analysis: Chicago mayor court move raises stakes in teachers strike

Reuters News

9/17/2012 12:03:16 AM - Reuters News

By Mary Wisniewski and Rebecca Hamilton

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel raised the political stakes on Sunday in a fight with unionized teachers by requesting a court injunction to end a weeklong strike affecting 350,000 public school students, analysts said.

"One of the problems for Emanuel is he is alienating all the unions, not just the teachers, but the police, the firefighters," said University of Illinois political science professor Dick Simpson. "That may hurt long-term."

The confrontation between the union and Emanuel, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, has boosted the weakened U.S. labor movement and opened a rift within the U.S. Democratic Party. Democrats are heavily dependent on labor union support, especially in getting out the vote in the November 6 elections.

"Obama has carefully stayed neutral. I don't expect him to weigh in yet," said Simpson, a former member of the Chicago City Council. "He will stay neutral as long as he can. Probably most of the congressional Democrats will as well. If it goes longer, nationally they'll have to start taking sides."

Emanuel said he would "immediately" seek an injunction in circuit court to end the strike by 29,000 public school teachers and staff after union leaders decided to continue the strike while consulting rank-and-file members on a proposed deal.

Negotiators on Friday said they had reached a "framework" agreement over contentious issues pushed by Emanuel, including teacher evaluations and school closures. But several hundred union delegates meeting on Sunday refused to accept the deal.

"There's no trust for our members, of the Board," teachers union leader Karen Lewis told reporters on Sunday evening.

Emanuel acted swiftly after Lewis made her remarks.

"While the union works through its remaining issues, there is no reason why the children of Chicago should not be back in the classroom as they had been for weeks while negotiators worked through these same issues," Emanuel said.

"I would have advised him to be patient for a couple of days, because then the onus is on the teachers" if the offer is formally voted down," Simpson said.

"The polls show the parent support has been with the teachers," he added. "Parents will probably continue to support the teachers in the short term, but not in the long term. The difficulties of handling the kids at home will overcome their sympathy."

Legal experts say Emanuel's resort to the courts is tricky. No injunction request has been filed in an Illinois educational labor dispute since 1984, when the state labor relations act gave Chicago teachers the right to strike.

Under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act some issues, like wages, are clearly a legal basis for strike action. But the legality of striking on some other issues the teachers are focused on, such as performance evaluation, is less clear.

"This continued action by union leadership is illegal on two grounds - it is over issues that are deemed by state law to be non-strikable, and it endangers the health and safety of our children," Emanuel said in the statement.

But the union may argue that wages cannot be disentangled from issues like class size or performance evaluation.

Martin Malin, an expert in labor law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, also said the union might argue that the city committed unfair labor practices and so does not have the right to an injunction.

The court could deny the injunction, or it could say that the teachers do not have a legal right to strike on one issue but do have the right to strike on another issue, according to University of Illinois labor law expert Robert Bruno.

The court could also issue a broad ruling that sends the teachers back to the classrooms. But that would not advance the underlying labor relations dispute, experts said.

"Even if the city got the injunction it would just mean you would send 26,000 incredibly angry employees into the schools," Bruno said.

(Additional reporting by Karen Pierog and Greg McCune.; Writing by Peter Bohan; Editing by Eric Walsh)