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The Chicago Teachers’ Strike: A Just Conflict?

Written by Brian Dijkema

September 21, 2012

I’ll bet you a deep dish pizza that you have an opinion on the Chicago teachers’ strike. It’s like asking if the White Sox or the Cubs represent Chicago best.

It’s hard to take a neutral stance on strikes, largely because they involve that which matters so much: work, wages and communities. But is there a way to put a normative framework on these events which might help us understand whether we should lend one side or another our support, and if so, why?

Strikes and lockouts are actions taken by a given party (unions or employers, whether private or public) to enforce their will on the other party through the use of power to achieve a desired end. That power is exerted either through the withholding of labor (a strike, initiated by the union) or through the withholding of work (a lockout, initiated by the employer).

Does that sound familiar? If you’re thinking this sounds remarkably like Clausewitz’s definition of war, “the continuation of politics by other means,” then you’re right. Strikes and lockouts are the continuation of labor negotiations by other means.

Thinking of strikes in this way is a helpful tool, because, as with political disputes, it helps us place economic disputes into a context where questions about justice can be asked. I’ve found it helpful to transpose just war criteria into labor relations terms. Here is a short, albeit imperfect, list which I’ve found useful in thinking about strikes.

Jus ad Inflictum

1. Legitimate authority. A strike is only just if it is called by the union, within the laws of the land and within its own rules.

2. Just cause. It must be waged in response to a particularly egregious proposal or action which will damage either party. Mere discomfort should not be enough.

3. Right intention. It must be waged to right a wrong. Any strike which is waged with the intent of “getting back” at the other party is not just.

4. Probability of success. A strike which is, on balance, unlikely to effect the change the union desires is not a just strike.

5. Proportionality. A union must consider the effects that their strike will have on the wider public.

Additionally, it’s helpful to note that there are rules which should govern action within strikes, themselves. The criteria fall under the category of Jus in Inflictum:

1. Obedience to the laws of the land. Boundaries set out by political authorities must be respected, violence is strictly prohibited, and officers of the law are respected and obeyed if they instruct within the law.

2. Proportionality. Labor must only withhold its labor. It may not engage in subterfuge or sabotage by other means in order to enforce its will. This, of course, does not preclude unions from mounting aggressive media or information campaigns.

3. Discrimination. Labor should focus on enforcing its will on the employer. As with war, there will be “collateral damage” (i.e. traffic is slowed, some services withheld), but these should not be pursued intentionally.

Some in the world of labor relations might suggest that such criteria set the bar too high—that strikes are not as damaging as war, and thus don’t require such extensive justification.

But those who consider work to be a cooperative venture between labor and capital, and who view the preservation of social goodwill among workers and employers to be critical in the pursuit of both justice and good work will note that strikes, like war, are extremely damaging and often have long-term downsides.

In each particular case, it is true that there are many, sometimes conflicting variables to consider, but, as Steven Garber notes, all justice this side of Eden and the Lord’s return is proximate.

Under this framework, the Chicago teachers’ strike failed to meet three, and possibly four, of the jus ad inflictum criteria. First, there was no just cause: the strikes were clearly not in response to outrageous or particularly egregious proposals by the city. Likewise, there was no clear wrong which the union was trying to rectify, and even if there was, the strike action seemed to disproportionately and negatively affect vulnerable children, especially the children for whom school is a rare place of stability and peace. Finally, the Chicago courts were in the process of deciding whether or not the strike was actually lawful, as the teachers are forbidden by law to strike for “non-economic matters.” If they had lost this case, they would have failed to meet the “legitimate authority” clause. But, regardless of this, the strike happened and damage to both parties—and the public—has been done. And, whether a strike is justified or not, its conclusion demands, as Robert Joustra recently noted, a just peace.

It is not enough to repay a wrong with another. The action must be aimed at a solution in which not only justice is achieved, but where justice in understood in the terms set out by the Book of Common Prayer, where “there is no strife among those who are engaged in the varied tasks of industry and commerce...That all, seek only what is right...[and] continue in brotherly union and concord, to their own well-being and the good of their fellow men.”