CTU says union contract negotiations should be livestreamed to the public. It has a point.

Mailee Smith

Staff Attorney and Director of Labor Policy

Mailee Smith
/ Labor
October 9, 2019

CTU says union contract negotiations should be livestreamed to the public. It has a point.

In calling for livestreamed negotiations, CTU highlights need for transparency in Illinois public employee negotiations.

The Chicago Teachers Union announced on Oct. 2 that its members will go on strike Oct. 17 after negotiations about which the public has little information.

The strike will affect more than 361,000 Chicago Public Schools students, most of whom are economically disadvantaged, as well as over 20,000 teachers. Not to mention the taxpayers, who will be on the hook for whatever contract is finally ratified.

So in the midst of these negotiations that will have a significant public impact comes a call to let the public in. CTU President Jesse Sharkey has called for open bargaining with Chicago Public Schools,  including livestreaming discussions at the bargaining table.

Although CTU is demanding concessions from CPS that the people of Chicago just can’t afford, it does have one thing right: it’s time for transparency in labor dealings.

Illinois law exempts government union contract negotiations from transparency laws

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration has launched a new informational website about its contract offer, but CTU argues it doesn’t go far enough.

In an email sent to CPS teachers, CTU stated the following:

“CPS has repeatedly rejected our proposal for open bargaining; the mayor’s new website represents a step toward public bargaining that CPS should expand. Open bargaining via livestreaming will help stakeholders – families, educators, neighborhood residents and Chicagoans across the city – observe bargaining unfiltered, providing the transparency and accountability Mayor Lightfoot successfully ran on as a candidate.”

But it isn’t just CPS that has rejected open bargaining – Illinois state law itself excludes collective bargaining from the state’s Open Meetings Act.

That means negotiations between government units and employee unions don’t have to be open to the public. And that allows the city or the union – or both – to hide behind a veil of secrecy while bargaining.

It isn’t just the negotiations that are secret. Perhaps even more detrimental, often the public – including union members themselves – don’t even see a contract before it is ratified.

Here’s how the process works: School districts and teachers’ unions begin negotiating new contracts months before a previous contract expires. Once a tentative agreement has been reached, each side votes. The teachers vote to ratify the contract, and the school board votes to approve the contract, whether or not they actually know what is in it. Sometimes school boards or unions release snippets of information about the provisions contained in the contract. But frequently, the full contract is not released to the public or even to union members until after both sides have voted and the contract is a done deal – leaving neither the members nor the taxpayers room to voice concerns over the full contract provisions.

Secret negotiations have resulted in numerous expensive contracts inked with no taxpayer or rank-and-file worker input 

There are multiple examples of the secrecy that shrouds negotiations – secrecy that could be averted by legislation requiring transparent negotiations between school districts and teachers unions.

In Palatine-area District 15 in 2016, the school board approved an unprecedented 10-year contract without first releasing the agreement to the public. Taxpayers were saddled with paying for a long-term contract before they even knew what was in it. While the median income of private-sector workers in the Palatine area did not even grow by a full percentage point between 2009 and 2014, the contract required them to fund yearly salary increases of 2.5% in the first four years and 4% in the final six years that well outpace their own income growth.

That same year, a school district in Dixon drew the ire of the media for failing to release a tentative teacher contract before voting on it. The Dixon school district met in special session on June 8, 2016, to vote on a four-year contract it refused to release before the vote.

In March 2016, East Aurora School District 131 declined to issue details about the agreement it had reached with the local teachers’ union, citing an agreement the parties had made during negotiations.

In 2015, Bloomington School District 87 struck a three-year contract with its teachers’ union, but would not release the contract until after school board approval. Later that year, school officials in Morton District 709 reached an agreement with its teachers’ union, but the district refused to release the document until after the teachers and school board had voted on it.

For years, proponents of labor reform have called for labor negotiations to be more open. Illinoisans – both government employees represented by the union and taxpayers represented by government officials – should be able to watch what goes on at the bargaining table and see the contract proposals of both sides before a contract is ratified. Transparency would allow taxpayers and rank-and-file union members to judge for themselves which side has the best interests of both public servants and residents in mind.

In this current round of negotiations, CTU is demanding concessions from CPS that the people of Chicago just can’t afford. Still, the union is correct that it’s time for transparency in labor dealings.

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