Bill would give more power to CTU in fight to prevent school reopening

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
/ Labor
January 11, 2021

Bill would give more power to CTU in fight to prevent school reopening

Illinois labor laws prevent the Chicago Teachers Union from going on strike to protest the reopening of school buildings. But the union is winning a push for legislation that places students’ return to school in jeopardy.

The Chicago Teachers Union might gain significant leverage in their effort to continue their 10-month absence from the classroom.

The Illinois Senate on Jan. 11 passed House Bill 2275, which already passed the Illinois House in 2019. It would end the limits in place for 25 years on what is open to contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools and the unions representing its workers. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not indicated whether he will sign the bill into law.

CTU and the other staff unions were limited to negotiating over wages and benefits, but the bill would open negotiations to issues such as class sizes. The union has been contending, without data or specifics to back the claims, that it is not yet safe to reopen schools closed since March 2020.

The bill passed during the lame duck session would make it simpler for CTU to keep teachers out of schools by eliminating steps that must be taken before going on strike. Even with the restrictions in place, the union went on strike three times within seven years, the most recent in 2019 lasting 11 days in the nation’s third-largest school district.

Chicago Public Schools special education students were slated to return Jan. 11, with elementary students returning Feb. 1. Approximately 5,000 CPS teachers were set to return to their buildings Jan. 4 to prepare for the Jan. 11 return of pre-kindergarten and special education students. But half stayed home amid claims by the CTU that schools weren’t safe.

In fact, CTU encouraged its members to “take action” against CPS’s plan to re-open schools and push local school councils to pass resolutions “vowing to stay remote.” What’s more, CTU hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a strike. That possibility will become more likely if Pritzker signs HB 2275.

But going on strike while under a contract is illegal in Illinois, meaning teachers who follow CTU’s lead risk loss of pay – or even their jobs.

Illinois Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of CTU, has demanded for months that school districts continue or return to remote learning.

But the science is not on IFT or CTU’s side.

“New information tells us that opening schools does not significantly increase community transmission of [COVID-19], however it is critical for schools to closely follow guidance provided by public health officials,” according to Dr. Lee Beers, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For example, a UNICEF report reviewing evidence in 191 countries found “no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”

There is also evidence coming out of Chicago itself, where 90-plus Catholic schools – which educate approximately 20,000 students – have not seen any significant outbreaks since starting school in-person last fall.

Importantly, Chicago already meets the metric health officials put in place for school reopenings.

As such, CTU has neither international nor local health data to support its insistence on continuing remote schooling.

There’s a lot at stake for the more than 340,000 CPS students who haven’t been inside a school since March 2020, with too many unable to access remote learning. Illinois’ limits on strikes are in place to protect the children and families in a school district.

HB 2275 may erode that protection – and help CTU keep students out of school buildings even longer.

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