After nearly a year at home, students in Chicago Public Schools finally returned to the classroom, thanks in part to the efforts of the Liberty Justice Center (LJC).
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), known as “the most militant teachers union in the country,” was the leading voice in opposition to schools reopening for nearly a year. The union threatened to go on strike if the district demanded a return to in-person instruction. However, there was a major flaw with the union’s plan: A strike would violate both the current collective bargaining agreement with Chicago Public Schools and Illinois law.
Chicago schools were following medical data and health department recommendations to open schools safely and with minimal risk. Not all of Chicago’s teachers agreed with the union, either. A vote in January showed that more than one-third of teachers were ready to return to in-person instruction. A refusal to return to the classroom could have had consequences far beyond Chicago as some across the states—from Virginia to Idaho and many areas in between—looked to CTU as a model of union strength.
By pressuring the CTU to follow the law, its contract, and to meet the needs of the communities the city’s public schools serve, LJC made them into an example of what teachers unions should do—instead of a cautionary tale.
Attorneys at the Liberty Justice Center reviewed the situation and realized that a CTU strike would not only violate state law but would also violate teachers’ own contracts. They placed an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune stating that: “By refusing to carry out job responsibilities that can only be done in person—preparing their classrooms—teachers are refusing to work and disrupting students from returning to school. That is exactly the same as a strike that disrupts the operation of a public school, which the contract prohibits.”
This media attention put CTU on notice and gave LJC a way to make sure Chicago’s families were educated on the issue and truly informed of the circumstances surrounding it. As local families chose to take on this powerful teachers union, LJC offered their legal services free of charge to help them.
The Chicago Tribune was just the beginning. LJC attorneys and the parents they represented were interviewed on local and national news outlets, including multiple appearances on Fox News Channel. The LJC team used news media to make the community—and the teachers union—aware that the legal team behind the historic Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision was ready to sue the CTU if the union went on strike. In early February, the union warned Chicago teachers that they would end up in court if teachers refused to get back to school and, on February 10, they admitted defeat and agreed to start teaching in person. By February 11, children started heading back to the classroom.
“Parents were elated that by giving them a voice and a platform, we were able to pressure the teachers union to return to in-person learning. The work we did together with these brave families has changed their children’s lives and there’s no substitute for that,” said Pat Hughes, LJC president and co-founder. “Unfortunately, as we look across the country, we know we have many fights with teachers unions ahead; we aren’t out of the woods yet when it comes to unions wielding their power against families. And we’re prepared to take on this fight until every student is back in school.”
This isn’t the only place where LJC deployed this winning strategy; its attorneys stood up for parents in other states, including Arizona, Virginia and Idaho.
Big wins like these aren’t easy to secure and can’t all be had in the same way. The Liberty Justice Center, a national public interest law firm, began as a two-person, Illinois-focused firm with aspirations of national impact. For years, LJC served as a powerful force against government abuse of power in Illinois, leveraging its unique strengths to advance positive solutions in a blue state. Under the leadership of president and co-founder Pat Hughes, LJC has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing and most aggressive public interest law firms in the country. Today the center’s team of constitutional litigators is working to advance worker freedom, protect free speech, expand school choice, challenge government overreach and safeguard the economic liberty and other fundamental freedoms that are our civil inheritance as Americans. LJC has now grown to seven attorneys and has filed more than 43 lawsuits in 22 states over the last two years. LJC continues to scan the horizon for new threats to liberty and opportunities to advance our fundamental freedoms.
The Liberty Justice Center (LJC) is a bold example of how to use strategic litigation to advance meaningful reforms and defend average Americans from abuses of power. LJC exists “to protect government employees, students, families, and other Americans whose constitutional rights have been violated.”
In late February, attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Memphis-area high school principal who was suspended for warning his students about the danger of cancel culture. LJC launched the case with a robust press rollout, including an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight. The principal was reinstated, sending a strong message that silencing people who dare to exercise their First Amendment rights will not be tolerated.
In February, the organization won another victory in Montana to protect individuals from ominous donor disclosure laws. This was a fight that had been waged since 2018 when then-Governor Steve Bullock issued an executive order that would require companies to disclose political donations if they wanted the opportunity to bid on state contracts. LJC fought this affront to free speech by filing a lawsuit on behalf of the Illinois Opportunity Project, a 501c4 that fights for freedom by advancing free-market principles into law. In late February, Governor Greg Gianforte issued an executive order of his own, this time ending forced donor disclosure, specifically citing this lawsuit as a reason for the decision.
These are examples from which our Network can learn so much. By using the tools at our disposal, including media outreach, strategic litigation, and advocacy, we can successfully fight back even the biggest and highest-funded opponents on critical issues. With other states and unions looking on, this benefits families far beyond the reach of the CTU. Now, students are headed back to the classroom and unions have been made aware that they are expected to live up to the law and their own contracts.
These are both significant wins on issues which matter to everyday Americans. Education, free speech, and labor are all poised for reform in 2021 and we know that it is in the states that this happens.