Vaccine mandate stalemate: Chicago mayor seeks legal action against FOP

Union leader John Catanzara has told members to defy the mandate. Mayor Lori Lightfoot warned of discipline if they do


By Alice Yin
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the police union are staring down a stalemate over the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Local Fraternal Order of Police president John Catanzara directed members to defy Friday’s deadline to report their shot status. The mayor warned of discipline if they do.

On Friday she took matters a step further, announcing the city’s law department has filed legal action seeking court intervention against the FOP and its President Catanzara “for engaging in, supporting, and encouraging a work stoppage or strike.” The union is not allowed to strike.

In this Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara speaks to reporters at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago.
In this Aug. 10, 2021, file photo, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara speaks to reporters at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times via AP, File)

What happens now? And what could this mean for public safety in a city coping with rising gun violence? We’ve broken it all down here:

How we got here

Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced in August that all city of Chicago workers must be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus by Oct. 15, following numerous cities across the U.S. The mandate for more than 30,000 city employees, except for those granted medical or religious exemptions, was immediately opposed by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, the largest union for the city’s police department.

That triggered ongoing public sparring between Lightfoot and Catanzara, with the union chief at one point comparing the vaccination mandate to the Holocaust. A swift condemnation from Lightfoot and others followed, and Catanzara apologized.

At the start of October, Lightfoot ramped up the stakes, vowing unspecified “consequences” for city workers who did not meet the Oct. 15 deadline. That hard line came even as the FOP told its members they can circumvent the vaccination requirement by undergoing regular COVID-19 testing without threat of losing pay or getting fired.

Lightfoot challenged that statement, but then on Oct. 8 she agreed to allow city workers to forgo the vaccine until the end of the year, if they submit to twice-weekly testing at their own expense.

But she also said employees who do not fill out the city portal form, whether they are vaccinated or not, will be placed on a no-pay status.

This week, the rhetoric between the mayor and Catanzara heated up further, with the latter vowing a lawsuit and instructing members to defy the reporting requirements on the city form as Friday’s deadline loomed.

The FOP announced the death of its former president Dean Angelo from complicates of COVID-19 on Tuesday — the same day Catanzara threatened legal action over the vaccine mandate.

The FOP’s latest moves

Catanzara on Thursday released a video reiterating his earlier instructions for union members to defy Lightfoot’s vaccination reporting requirement, calling it “illegal” and the product of a “dictatorship.”

His latest calls for noncooperation included telling the rank-and-file to refuse direct orders from supervisors about filling out the city portal form. The other three Chicago police unions — the sergeants, lieutenants and captains — are on board with the strategy, Catanzara said.

He told officers that if anyone orders them to report their vaccine status before the deadline at midnight Friday night, they should record the encounter on their body cameras if possible.

Two days earlier, he had posted a video urging about 10,000 active officers to defy Lightfoot’s vaccination reporting requirement and brace for being sent home without pay. He also said he will sue the city to fight Lightfoot’s mandate.

Catanzara advised his members to report to work Friday with the assumption they would be sent home and said he would also forgo pay.

It is unclear how many officers will follow Catanzara’s directive, but he suggested the department could be operating at 50% capacity this weekend.

“Whatever happens because of that manpower issue, that falls at the mayor’s doorstep,” Catanzara said in his Tuesday video.

Can the police union strike?

A Chicago FOP police strike is prohibited both by their contract and by the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act.

But Catanzara’s strategy is for based on the assumption that the city will send officers home on a no-pay status, as the mayor has suggested. He’s suggested that would not be a strike, because it would be the result of the city’s action.

On Thursday, Lightfoot stood firm on the rule but acknowledged that officers would not be sent home this weekend without pay because it would take some time to confirm noncompliance.

But Friday’s announcement of legal action — not by the union by by the city against the union — indicated the mayor hopes the courts will quickly settle the matter. Part of the city’s argument is that the police union cannot legally strike.

What could happen next?

Contrary to Catanzara’s remarks, Matthew Finkin, a labor law professor at University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, said the FOP might not have as much leverage as it thinks.

It is true the city would have to jump through hoops over a potential mass noncompliance of the mandate, he said, but that could also chip away at the public’s opinion of the police union.

“They’re rolling the dice,” Finkin said. “There can be severe consequences.”

Finkin also said Catanzara’s direction could be tantamount to a strike if it’s seen as a “concerted job action.” That could open the officers to discipline rising to firing.

Martin Malin, a law professor emeritus at Chicago-Kent College of Law and a Biden appointee to a federal labor panel, said the FOP’s plans are “uncharted territory” when it comes to the definition of a strike. But he cautioned that the old labor adage, “obey now, grieve later,” would be the wisest course of action for the FOP should they wish to avoid punishment for insubordination.

Still, Malin said Catanzara’s not gambling on his legal footing but his political might.

“It’s one thing whether you have the legal right to do something; it’s another thing as to whether you have the power to do it,” Malin said. “How much is real and how much is posturing? And Catanzara and Lightfoot don’t get along at all, so you’ve got to factor that in as well.”

And when it comes to whether first responders like police and firefighters will sign up to miss work, Malin said, the evidence is dubious.

“Will his members follow that request? That’s anybody’s guess,” Malin said.

Who is John Catanzara?

Catanzara was elected to head the local FOP, which has about 11,000 active and retired officers, last year. From the time he started with the department in January 1995 through mid-2017, Catanzara amassed at least 35 complaints alleging misconduct, records obtained by the Tribune show.

But he rode a wave of controversy to popularity with fellow officers, including filing a complaint against then-Superintendent Eddie Johnson accusing him of breaking the law by allowing an anti-violence march to proceed in 2018 along the Dan Ryan Expressway. He also made comments downplaying the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot that left several law enforcement officers dead before apologizing.

Catanzara, like previous FOP presidents, also sparred with the mayor’s office over its first Chicago police contract since 2017. That chapter of negotiations saw division between union and city officials over police discipline as the FOP continued to oppose a federal consent decree to overhaul the police force.

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