Illinois Supreme Court to Tackle Public Employees' Right to Strike

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Our previews of the new civil cases granted review at the end of the Illinois Supreme Court’s November term continue with The Board of Education of Peoria School District No. 150 v. The Peoria Federation of Support Staff, Security/Policemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association No. 114 [pdf]. Board of Education poses two questions: the constitutionality of a recent amendment to the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act relating to certain public employees’ right to strike, and the identity of the proper state administrative board to take jurisdiction over an unfair labor practice claim.

According to the complaint, the plaintiff is the only school district in Illinois which employs its own security officers (as opposed to securing its schools by coordinating with local police departments). The plaintiff’s officers have been represented by various iterations of a union since 1989. When the latest union contract expired in mid-2010, two disputes arose: one fight over the timing of the negotiations, and another over what state law governed the parties’ discussions.

The Public Labor Relations Act regulates labor relations between most public-sector employees and their employers. School districts and their employees are specifically excluded from the coverage of the Act – they fall, as a general matter, under the Educational Labor Relations Act. But by virtue of a 2010 amendment to the Public Labor Relations Act, “a school district in the employment of peace officers in its own police department in existence on the effective date of this amendatory Act of the 96th General Assembly” is brought back within the coverage of the Act.

Note two things about the language of this “exception to the exception” : first, it only affects the plaintiff in Board of Education – the only school district in the state which employs its own security officers. And second, as written it can never affect anyone else – the class is closed on the effective date of the 2010 amendment. This potentially matters a great deal, since public employees who are subject to the Public Labor Relations Act and are employed as security personnel, peace officers, or firefighters are prohibited from striking – they are required to accept interest arbitration instead.   Employees subject to the Educational Labor Relations Act are, as a general matter, allowed to strike.

The plaintiff filed a two-count complaint, seeking (1) a declaration that the 2010 amendment to the Public Labor Relations Act was unconstitutional special legislation; and (2) that its negotiations with its security officers were governed by the Education Labor Relations Act, rather than the Public Labor Relations Act. The Circuit Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, but the Appellate Court reversed.

The Illinois Constitution prohibits “special legislation” – meaning statutes which discriminate in favor of a select group on an arbitrary basis. The distinction made by the Public Labor Relations Act between security officers employed by schools and those employed by others wasn’t the problem, the Appellate Court held. The problem was the language of the statute closing the class as of the effective date of the statute. Absent that clause, the distinction might have a rational basis: for example, ensuring that police officers, no matter who employed them, could not strike. But a statutory provision which applied to only one school district and could never apply to anyone else had no apparent rational basis, in the Court’s view. Therefore, the plaintiff’s constitutional challenge to the Public Labor Relations Act was sufficiently viable to go forward.

With respect to the plaintiff’s second claim, seeking a declaration as to whether its dispute fell under the jurisdiction of the state board administering the Education Labor Relations Act or the separate board administering the Public Labor Relations Act, the state boards argued that the plaintiff’s claim failed for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The Appellate Court rejected the argument, concluding that the plaintiff’s claim was analogous to a challenge to the board’s jurisdiction, and thus exempt from the exhaustion requirement.

We expect the Supreme Court to decide Board of Education within four to six months.