Judge bars Chicago FOP head from encouraging members to spurn vaccine mandate
It's the latest twist in a standoff between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and FOP President John Catanzara
By Alice Yin, Gregory Pratt, John Byrne, Megan Crepeau, Dan Petrella and Tatyana Turner
CHICAGO — A judge late Friday issued a temporary restraining order against the Chicago police union president, prohibiting him from making public statements that encourage members not to report their COVID-19 vaccine status to the city.
Cook County Circuit Judge Cecilia Horan ruled there was potential irreparable harm if local Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara persisted in making such statements. City attorneys argued they were tantamount to him advocating “sedition” and “anarchy” because he was directing members to disobey an order from their superiors.
It was the latest twist in the high-stakes standoff between Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the local police union over the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. With both sides accusing the other of illegally risking the safety of the city over the issue, the fight shifted into the courts Friday with dueling lawsuits.
Lightfoot asked the courts to intervene after the union chief told members to disobey Friday’s deadline to report their vaccine status. The local Fraternal Order of Police in turn filed its own lawsuit against the city, mayor and police Superintendent David Brown that seeks to force arbitration over the matter.
During a lengthy emergency hearing Friday evening, Horan ruled that the restraining order be in place until Oct. 25, when another court session is to take place. Earlier, FOP attorney Joel D’Alba had asked the city to stop ordering workers to report their vaccine status during that time, but city attorneys would not agree to that.
“What’s truly extraordinary is they want to silence somebody who is the elected president of the union,” said D’Alba, who in the course of the hearing noted that Catanzara himself is vaccinated.
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In court, city lawyers argued Catanzara was effectively calling for an illegal work action, since the FOP isn’t allowed by contract to strike.
“That is a work stoppage. That is a strike,” attorney Michael Warner said. “It might not result in a shortfall of officers over the weekend, but it will in a matter of days.”
The nearly two-hour hearing began with arguments from the city that Catanzara was holding the city “hostage” to the point of “municipal sedition and treason.” However, Warner also conceded the vaccination reporting policy was unpopular with the police union.
Minutes after the hearing concluded, Catanzara uploaded another YouTube video encouraging FOP members to “do what’s in their hearts and minds.” Then he held up a “John Catanzara for Mayor 2023″ sign and said, “Enough is enough.”
The court actions and mutual name-calling were indicative of a growing standoff between the city and the police union over the vaccine mandate, which has escalated in recent days even after Lightfoot agreed to give employees the option of submitting to COVID-19 testing for the rest of the year if they’re not yet fully vaccinated.
“As Chicago’s Mayor, I cannot and will not stand idly by while the rhetoric of conspiracy theorists threatens the health and safety of Chicago’s residents and first responders,” Lightfoot said in a statement issued Friday morning. Catanzara “has time and again deliberately misled our police officers by lying about the requirements of the policy and falsely claiming that there will be no repercussions if officers are insubordinate and refuse to follow a City and Department directive or order,” she said.
The mayor claims Catanzara is “engaging in, supporting, and encouraging a work stoppage or strike.” State law and the FOP contract both prohibit striking by Chicago police.
The Chicago FOP Twitter account responded Friday morning by posting, “President John Catanzara has never engaged in, supported, or encouraged a work stoppage.”
“They can take us to court all they want,” Catanzara said in a video posted Friday.
He also referred to the Lightfoot administration as a “dictatorship” and complained that First Deputy Police Superintendent Eric Carter is “threatening officers with termination carrying the mayor’s water.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker has also weighed in on the prospect of Illinois National Guard help in Chicago if police are off the job en masse.
“We’ve offered every resource, every public safety resource that’s available to the state to offer to municipalities to the city of Chicago, so if the city calls us, we’ll respond,” Pritzker said at an unrelated event Thursday when asked by a conservative radio talk show host whether he was “ready to call in the Illinois National Guard.”
When asked Thursday if the governor should call in resources or declare a state of emergency, Lightfoot said: “I don’t want to deal in hypothetical scenarios that have not presented themselves. Obviously, we believe in planning and being ready.”
The mayor has sought to send a strong warning to rank-and-file members of the Chicago Police Department that they must follow the mandate rules, while at the same time trying to downplay any risk to public safety. Her administration has said it will follow through on disciplinary action against noncompliant officers, including possible “separation,” but she also acknowledged that would not start immediately.
In its court filing, however, Lightfoot’s administration said the union is trying to force it into a no-win choice between submitting to the FOP’s “extortionate demands” or leaving the city without sufficient policing.
“If Catanzara and the FOP are allowed to continue with these extortionate demands ... the City will be faced with an unlawful and untenable Hobson’s Choice: either exempt the FOP membership from complying with reasonable and necessary directives needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and thereby jeopardize the health and safety of both CPD employees and citizens with whom they interact, or be left without a police force sufficient to keep the peace and combat the pandemic of violent crime plaguing the City,” the city’s legal filing reads.
Lightfoot summed it up at an unrelated news conference Friday with another word, claiming Catanzara is trying to spur an “insurrection.”
Lightfoot also took aim Friday at Catanzara’s checkered disciplinary history, noting that he is currently facing the possibility of being fired by the Chicago Police Board. She repeatedly urged officers not to follow in his footsteps.
“I don’t want him to lead these young officers astray and have them destroy their careers like he’s destroyed his,” Lightfoot said.
In its own filing, the local FOP is asking the court to order the city to engage in arbitration over the vaccine reporting requirement, claiming it’s a new condition of employment improperly imposed without collective bargaining.
Police union lawyers also filed a motion to dismiss the city’s suit, arguing in part that officers’ refusal to disclose their vaccination status does not pose a “clear and present danger” to the public’s health and safety.
The mayor has linked the ongoing standoff to bigger issues facing the Chicago Police Department, saying the city can’t let Catanzara dictate how the department runs and arguing that the Police Department’s legitimacy is being put at risk by the FOP.
Lightfoot announced in August that all city 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 FOP, the largest union for the city’s Police Department.
Earlier this week, Catanzara — with whom Lightfoot has regularly sparred — released a video that included threats to sue the city and orders for thousands of rank-and-file members to defy Lightfoot’s vaccination reporting requirement and brace for being sent home without pay.
It is unclear how many officers will follow suit. But in a video Catanzara posted Thursday evening, the union boss again told his members to refuse any instruction to report their vaccine status, calling that an illegal order. He encouraged his rank and file to record such directives on their body cameras if they can.
Experts told the Tribune that Catanzara is walking a fine line legally. Matthew Finkin, a labor law professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said the police union leader’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.
“They’re rolling the dice,” Finkin said. “There can be severe consequences.”
The FOP also might not have as much leverage as it thinks, Finkin added. 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.
Martin Malin, a law professor emeritus at Chicago-Kent College of Law and President Joe Biden’s 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 if its members wish to avoid punishment for insubordination.
Still, Malin said Catanzara’s not gambling on his legal footing but, rather, on 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.”
On Thursday evening, Catanzara appeared on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” to share his views on the order.
“Our stance from the beginning is that we’re a union there are collective bargaining rights that need to be maintained and honored,” Catanzara said.
Lightfoot is in a politically fraught situation with the dispute over vaccination mandates. She wants to encourage workers to get vaccinated but doesn’t want to suspend significant portions of the workforce, particularly not police officers, as Chicago crime remains high.
The mayor, who has repeatedly caved on ultimatums she has issued to the Chicago Teachers Union in other labor disputes, doesn’t want to back down from the mandate, which leaves her with relatively little room to maneuver.
A court ruling in Lightfoot’s favor could make the case for compliance easier by undercutting Catanzara’s argument that the union’s actions are proper.
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