Illinois labor court denies union’s latest effort to block Chicago school reopening

A sign hanging on a doorknob that indicates that the room has recently been cleaned.
A sign hanging on a doorknob in a Chicago elementary school indicates the room was recently cleaned. The city’s teachers union wants to delay a reopening planned for the start of 2021. (Stacey Rupolo/Chalkbeat)

A state labor court on Thursday denied the Chicago Teachers Union’s request to delay the district’s school reopening plans, clearing the latest legal challenge to an imminent school reopening. 

The 2-1 ruling is a setback to the union’s efforts to challenge reopening plans on the grounds that Chicago Public Schools has not bargained with them in good faith. It is unlikely to be their last effort. 

The first wave of Chicago teachers is expected to return to school buildings on Jan. 4. 

Despite months of negotiations, the city’s teachers union and the school district have failed to reach a written agreement. The union has said that the district isn’t bargaining in good faith and doesn’t send its top leadership to negotiations. The district, meanwhile, said the union was late to bring forward concrete proposals. The growing intensity of the conflict is reminiscent of last fall, when teachers walked out on an 11-day strike after weeks of stalled negotiations.

Even as the district and union continue to meet regularly, Chicago Public Schools leaders said they don’t expect to have a written agreement with the union ahead of January’s reopening, and they plan to press ahead without it.

A district spokeswoman commended the decision, calling it a ruling that would help solve “an educational crisis that can only be addressed by safely opening our doors.” 

In the case, the union argued that it should be consulted about the district’s planning decisions, and that the risk for teachers who may contract COVID-19 in schools is life and death. The district argued that labor law allows the city to draft a plan and bargain while implementing it. 

In her recommendation, Ellen Strizak, the labor board’s general counsel, said that while there were many critical facts still in dispute, the union hadn’t established reasonable cause to show the district had violated labor law on bargaining. If the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board had voted in favor of an injunction, the case would have moved to circuit court. 

Only Board member Lynne Sered voted in favor of an injunction. 

Sered argued that the health and safety of union members is a mandatory subject of bargaining, which is in line with the union’s argument on reopening. “We are literally dealing with life and death issues. I find this to be irreparable harm,” Sered said.

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In response to the ruling, union leaders said they will hold an executive board meeting early next week, and consider broader actions that could include a strike. “All options will be on the table for the CTU to enforce our rights and protect the health, safety, and livelihoods of students, educators and their families,” union president Jesse Sharkey said.

The question of reopening schools during a pandemic has opened up uncharted labor territory for teachers unions nationwide. 

Some large urban districts never crafted reopening agreements with their unions, but districts across the country have also seen waves of sick-outs, car caravans and other protests from teachers against a return to in-person learning. 

In labor law, questions of health and safety are generally considered mandatory issues of bargaining because they affect teacher working conditions. But where the reopening plan falls within mandatory or permissive bargaining is still in dispute. 

The injunction request is part of the union’s ongoing legal strategy to force Chicago Public Schools to negotiate the terms of its reopening through labor courts The union also has sought to influence public opinion by holding public events and rallies. The case, which the injunction was part of, has still not been decided. 

Currently, a hearing on the larger case is set for Jan. 26, but union officials said they are pressing for an earlier date.

The union released a list of its latest demands last week, including a 3% test positivity threshold to reopen schools and the creation of a CTU-CPS Joint Committee on COVID-19 that includes independent experts. It has also rejected the district’s plan for simultaneous instruction for teachers in the classroom. 

On Wednesday, Chicago Public Schools released survey data showing that slightly more than 1 in 3 students in kindergarten to eighth grade planned to return to school buildings when they reopen in early 2021. Chicago has not yet set a reopening date for its high schools.

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