Director of Labor Policy
At the end of today’s blog post you should be thinking a bit more like a lawyer, though you might prefer the skull full of mush you had beforehand.
Teachers in Carpentersville-based District 300 went on strike for one day this week. Among the issues that remained at the time of the strike was class sizes. The district was willing to accept some limits to class sizes in elementary schools, but the union wanted class size limits at all grades backed up by bonus payments to teachers who handle extra students.
There’s a catch: The labor law states that class size limits are a discretionary subject of bargaining, and that school districts should be able to decide unilaterally what is an acceptable class size. Unions can ask for class size limits, and if a school district is willing to include them in the contract then the two sides can negotiate over them. But in theory, school districts should be able to say “no thanks” and that should be the end of it.
But there’s a complication on top of that: The law says that even after a district says no to class sizes, the union can bargain over the “impact” of the district’s decision. However, not even then the union should be able to call a strike over that; if the two sides cannot agree on how to address the “impact” of the board’s decision to accept higher class sizes, the issue should be referred to arbitration. In theory.
But does any of that really matter? There’s was still the issues of wages, along with the related issue of late-career salary hikes (routinely done to bump-up future pensions). Those are mandatory subjects of collective bargaining, meaning the board has to bargain with the union over those, and if they can’t come to an agreement, the union is allowed to call a strike. In Carpentersville, the two sides were reasonably close on wages before the strike, but an agreement isn’t an agreement until both sides say so. In the absence of an agreement on wages, the union can still wage a strike.
What the bargaining statute doesn’t really say is what happens when a union calls a strike over wages and something else that unions aren’t supposed to call a strike over. And the courts have yet to rule on the question either. This isn’t the first time a union has taken advantage of the confusion.September’s Chicago Teachers Union strike was fought over very similar ground, with CTU withholding agreement on wages while they sought concessions on teacher evaluations and rehiring of laid-off staff. The strike was waged for illegal purposes, but the union managed to use wages to hold off a court injunction to end the walkout. Even if the statute did say a union couldn’t play this game, proving that was the union’s intention might be difficult when you remember that collective bargaining sessions are held out of the public eye. With no Open Meetings Act requirement, proving that a union is using a fake dispute over wages to gain an unfair advantage on evaluations or layoffs or class sizes is more difficult than it ought to be.
Which brings us back to a point where the fine points of the law don’t necessarily matter as much as union leverage, and the skull full of mush probably understands the situation as well as the highly-trained legal mind: As long as school districts are forced to bargain with a union, a “mandatory subject of bargaining” is whatever the union wants to talk about.
(The relevant statute, for those of you who are curious, is here. Scroll down about a quarter of the way to 115 ILCS 5/4.5.)
image credit: Christopher Hankins | Daily Herald Staff Photographer