Chicago Standoff

On State Street, that great street,
I just want to say…
They do things that they never
Do on Broadway
” – Frank Sinatra

This is not a piece about Covid-19, vaccines, or vaccine mandates. It is a piece about power. At issue is whether authorities in the United States have the power to mandate that certain citizens take the Covid-19 vaccines. The answer, quite obviously, depends on which authorities are claiming that power and which citizens are resisting it.

In South by Southwest, we concluded that the vaccine mandate efforts in the airline industry would fail, and that this didn’t bode well for the mandate movement nationally:

Given that fact set, we speculate the Southwest incident is almost certainly related to vaccine mandates.  We further suspect this marks the beginning of the end of zero tolerance policies by corporations on the vaccine issue. It just won’t work. In the battle between capital and labor, labor currently has the upper hand. If labor refuses to get vaccinated, there can be no mandates.

Since that piece published, subsequent events have supported our conclusion. Meanwhile, there’s a rather more consequential brawl playing out in Chicago, the outcome of which we predict will decide the issue conclusively. Mayor Lori Lightfoot is locked in a dramatic fight over the city’s vaccine policy with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union which represents Chicago police officers. Union boss John Catanzara, Jr., himself apparently fully vaccinated, has ordered his officers not to comply with various aspects of Lightfoot’s policies, beginning with a deadline for officers to report their current vaccine status to the city by midnight last Friday.

I grew up in a union household. I have vivid memories of how cool I thought it was that my father sometimes got to take a baseball bat to work. Too young to be fully in the loop, I did my best to eavesdrop on my father’s conversations with his friends. I picked up, in vague terms, that it had something to do with wild cats and scabs, and that the baseball bats were meant to cure the issue, although I was naive enough to not figure out how.

Anyway, back to Chicago.

For her part, Lightfoot has taken a hard line. Here’s how WTTW reported it on Friday:

“That effort is threatened by the union’s call for officers to refuse to tell city officials whether they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by midnight Friday, Lightfoot said. Those who are not can avoid discipline by agreeing to be tested twice a week, on their own time and at their own expense, until Dec. 31.

‘That’s what at stake — the legitimacy of local policing,’ Lightfoot said.

Officers who refuse to get vaccinated should leave the Chicago Police Department, Lightfoot said.

‘We’re not having that,” Lightfoot said. “If that’s the police department they want to be in, they should walk to another police department. It is an honor to be a Chicago Police officer.’”

Calling on officers to obey or quit seems like a bold move, especially for a mayor that already has a strained relationship with her police force. It is hard to imagine how she walks back those statements.

Similarly, Catanzara is hardening his position. For his version of events, we turn to Patch.com:

Saying the mayor's office has refused to bargain in good faith, John Catanzara, head of Chicago Lodge 7 of the Fraternal Order of Police, or FOP, said the union planned to file a class action lawsuit if city officials follow through on a promise to place police officers into "no-paid" status for refusing to participate in the city's vaccination portal.

‘All I can tell you is, if, [as] we suspect, the numbers are true, and we get a large number of our members to stand firm on their beliefs, that this is an overreach, and they're not going to provide the information in the portal or submit to testing, then it's safe to say that the city of Chicago will have a police force at 50 percent or less for this weekend coming up,’ Catanzara said Tuesday in a video message.

The case has predictably made its way to the courts, with both sides suing each other. Separately, there was already a concurrent move to have Catanzara fired for disparaging remarks he made about Muslims on his Facebook page in 2016, which follows previous efforts to fire him for administrative misconduct. Mix in rising city crime rates, local outrage over police shootings, and Lightfoot’s sinking approval numbers and it is easy to see how this standoff could spark a powder keg.

All of this comes amidst the backdrop of stalled vaccination efforts in Illinois, a theme which is common throughout the country. Our trusty Bloomberg terminal has an incredible wealth of data on all manner of Covid-19 statistics. Pulling up the data for Illinois, the slowing pace of adults getting fully vaccinated is familiar. There’s a stubbornly high number of Americans who simply won’t ever get the vaccine, carrots and sticks notwithstanding.

Power is a deeply fascinating thing to observe and ponder, and you can expect that we’ll continue to write about it with regularity. Technically, I suspect Mayor Lightfoot has the law on her side. Exercising this power while circumventing a catastrophic showdown with the police is an entirely separate matter. The unfortunate victims of my father’s bat probably had the law on their side too, but in union fights it’s the reality on the ground matters most. 

The reality of the Friday deadline came and went, and the weekend saw continued escalation. On Sunday evening, just as a union meeting was adjourning, the city issued a memo warning officers that they now face disciplinary action (emphasis added):

A Department member, civilian or sworn, who disobeys a direct order by a supervisor to comply with the City of Chicago's Vaccination Police issued 8 October 2021 will become the subject of a disciplinary investigation that could result in a penalty up to and including separation from the Chicago Police Department. Furthermore, sworn members who retire while under disciplinary investigations may be denied retirement credentials.

The threat to revoke the pensions of officers – earned over decades – who decide to retire in lieu of submitting to the mandate is a significant escalation, one that is sure to trigger a nuclear response from the union. According to Catanzara, some 40% of the current police force are eligible to simply walk away from the job with full pension. Predictably, the union posted a fiery response to their Facebook page, calling the mayor a tyrant:

Will the vaccinated cops hold the line for the ones that refuse? Knowing unions as I do, I can’t imagine they will fold. It won’t take too many nights with no cops on the beat for the city to realize who holds the cards in this standoff. Will Lightfoot follow through on her threat to put as many as half of Chicago’s police on “no paid” status, or to pull retiree pensions? Given her previous comments on the matter, what’s her realistic alternative?

We predict things are going to get ugly in the Windy City. The fate of vaccine mandates hangs in the balance. Stay tuned…

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