Government union lobbying turns legislation against students

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
May 14, 2018

Government union lobbying turns legislation against students

SB 2838 was meant to aid school districts – and students – by providing a means for schools to recruit substitute teachers. But government union lobbying transformed it into a pro-union, pro-strike bill that hinders educational opportunities for students during teacher strikes.

Illinois’ government worker unions are at it again – not only working to strengthen their right to walk out on strike, but doing so in a way that could harm public school students.

Senate Bill 2838 started out as a bill to assist school districts in lining up substitute teachers. It would have allowed elementary and secondary schools to utilize “recruiting firms” to supplement substitute teacher hiring during times of substitute teacher shortage. It even included language protecting teacher unions, providing that a school district could not use a recruiting firm to circumvent a collective bargaining agreement.

The intent was pro-student. Students need teachers. Some school districts need help lining up substitutes. This was also a good bill for taxpayers because it would have allowed school districts to save valuable time and taxpayer dollars by going through a third party recruiting firm, thus making the process more efficient.

But Illinois’ government worker unions perceive anything that isn’t militantly pro-union as a threat – even if it is something that would aid students.

The Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois AFL-CIO and the Chicago Teachers Union all lobbied against the bill.

And then the bill was amended.

SB 2838, as it has been amended, now provides that recruiting firms cannot be used to hire substitute teachers during a teacher strike. If the school doesn’t have enough teachers to continue educating students during a strike – tough luck.

In other words, a pro-student bill was converted into a pro-union bill that hinders educational opportunities for students during teacher strikes.

It isn’t as if Illinois’ government unions need enhanced rights during strikes. In fact, Illinois has some of the most restrictive laws in the region when it comes to negotiating with government worker unions.

One of the most glaring differences between Illinois and each of its neighboring states: Illinois alone gives most government workers the right to strike, while all surrounding states prohibit strikes by all or most government workers.

The ability to strike is a powerful tool. When a government worker union in Illinois doesn’t get its way in negotiations, it can threaten to shut down schools – and the services students need – in order to have its demands met.

The power to strike is not merely theoretical. It plays out across the state in multiple ways every year:

  • In April 2018, faculty at Western Illinois University authorized a strike with just three weeks remaining in the spring semester.
  • In May 2017, faculty at the University of Illinois-Springfield walked out on students just one week before finals.
  • In September 2016, teachers in Champaign voted in favor of a strike after students were already in school for the year.
  • Since 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU, has gone on strike – or threatened to go on strike – at least four times.

Government worker strikes – which tend to ignore economic and community realities – come with heavy costs.

For example, when CTU went on strike in 2012, Chicago Public Schools was already facing a $1 billion budget deficit and an $8 billion
teacher pension shortfall. But CTU went on strike anyway, demanding higher wages even though CTU members already received high salaries and generous benefits. In fact, Chicago teachers are some of the highest-paid among the nation’s 50 largest school districts.

After the strike ended, CPS announced it had to close 50 schools and lay off thousands of teachers to help reduce costs.

The deck is stacked against residents in Illinois when it comes to government worker strikes. And SB 2838 could have at least ensured more students could go to school in the event of a teacher strike.

But Illinois’ government unions are too often about union power – not about what’s best for students.

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