The Chicago teacher strike illustrates the need for the Supreme Court to grant a rehearing in Friedrichs v. CTA. Many Chicago teachers are worried about just how the strike will affect their students, but their union has made it clear dissenters will not be tolerated. This highlights the central issue of Friedrichs and demonstrates the need for the Supreme Court to speak authoritatively to the question of teacher’s First Amendment rights.
On March, 23rd, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to strike on April 1st. The strike is the culmination of months of deadlocked negotiations with the city government. The unions want teacher raises and no changes to pensions, but the city is broke and facing massive budget shortfalls.
Not all teachers in Chicago agree that a strike is the most appropriate response. One teacher confessed anonymously to a local paper that she is “morally and ethically” against the walkout because her loyalty to her students trumps her loyalty to her union.
And she has good cause for concern. A report from the Brookings Institution after the 2012 Chicago strike explained that teacher walkouts have an outsized impact on underprivileged children who can least afford it.
“A strike doesn’t leave students with substitute teachers—it leaves them without any school at all. Research on summer learning loss shows that being out of school has a disproportionate effect on low-income students. One recent study found that “while all students lose some ground in mathematics over the summer, low-income students lose more ground in reading, while their higher-income peers may even gain.” In other words, the consequence of being out of school is to increase the already unacceptably large achievement gap between low-income students and their affluent peers.”
The anonymous Chicago teacher seems to agree. As she further explained, “It sends the wrong message to the kids. We’re there to teach and set a good example. This sets a horrible example. I think we are being used as pawns to get legislation passed.”
But why did this teacher feel the need to speak anonymously? One of her colleagues, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told the local paper that “It was said to me as a matter of fact that the consequence of choosing to come to school is being kicked out of the union.”
Indeed, one of the union leaders issued a statement declaring, “If you cross the picket line you are considered a strikebreaker. Once that is reported to the office … we have a series of meetings and the committee determines whether to revoke your union membership.”
As a private organization, the union has a right to put conditions on its membership. But teachers who object also have a First Amendment right to not support the activities of an organization to which they don’t want to belong.
The Supreme Court should grant CIR’s petition for rehearing in Friedrichs so that teachers don’t have to be afraid to speak out for their students.