Potential CTU strike about boosting power of nation’s teachers’ unions

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
January 30, 2021

Potential CTU strike about boosting power of nation’s teachers’ unions

The Chicago Teachers Union prided itself as the vanguard for a rash of nationwide teacher strikes following its 2012 walkout. It’s using the same playbook in 2021.

Researchers with the Centers for Disease Control announced on Jan. 26, “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission.” Seven of the 10 largest school districts have responded by resuming classroom instruction at some point during the school year, with an eighth poised to follow.

Yet some of the most vociferous teachers’ unions are still pushing to remain remote, with the Chicago Teachers Union in the lead.

It begs the question: Is the refusal to go back to school about what is best for kids?

It doesn’t appear so. Teachers’ unions represent teachers – not students. And it’s becoming clear that students’ wellbeing is not figuring into their calculations.

CTU is poised to launch its fourth strike in nine years. It takes credit for triggering multiple teachers’ union strikes around the nation in recent years.

Specifically, it claims its 2012 strike, “changed the future of organizing.” It also forced the closure of 50 schools and the layoff of thousands of teachers so Chicago Public Schools could cut costs to compensate for satisfying the union’s expensive demands.

Now CTU seems to be using the same playbook. It’s pushing the boundaries of its strike power – poised to engage in what is likely an illegal strike – to increase its stranglehold over the district and the students its members are supposed to serve.

It is once again sending a signal for teachers’ unions across the country to follow its lead. Not only is it preaching a refusal to work if there is the slightest risk a teacher could contract COVID-19, but that unions grow their power over the people.

Teachers’ unions’ push for continued remote learning isn’t about kids

Union opposition to schools reopening seems to defy the science.

The CDC isn’t the only source revealing little evidence that schools contribute meaningfully to the spread of COVID-19.

There is similar data from around the world, such as a UNICEF report citing evidence from 191 countries showing “no consistent association between school reopening status and COVID-19 infection rates.”

Even anecdotal evidence from Chicago shows in-person learning is relatively safe, with 20,000 parochial students in class since fall.

It also flies in the face of what is known about students’ academic and mental health needs. A study out of Columbia University in December 2020 found remote learning is widening the achievement gap because it is less effective than in-person schooling.

In Las Vegas, a rise in student suicides is driving Clark County schools, the fifth largest district in the nation, to push to reopen as quickly as possible. According to a doctor from the CDC, school districts have reported “suicide clusters” since COVID-19 lockdowns began.

The overwhelming evidence supporting the reopening of schools isn’t just academic. Schools across the nation are reopening and proving that education can be done in person when safety protocols are in place.

Currently, 7 of the 10 largest school districts in the nation have been at least partially open for in-school instruction at some point in the school year. That includes New York, where the district reopened elementary schools in December.

The Houston Independent School District reopened its doors in October and continues to give parents the option of virtual or in-person education.

Five of the largest districts are in Florida, where an emergency order requires public schools to remain open, while keeping online learning an option.

And when the Las Vegas area schools reopen, there will be eight.

The remaining two: Los Angeles and Chicago.

What’s more, just when school districts that aren’t yet open think they’ve met union demands about safety, the unions increase their demands.

For example, after the Fairfax County, Virginia, school system demanded – and received – priority vaccinations for their teachers, the Fairfax Education Association president said the union would not support a return to full-time, in-person education even in the fall – nine months after receiving the vaccinations. Now the union wants students to be vaccinatedbefore in-person instruction resumes.

Similar demands are being made by CTU. CPS announced in January it believed it had reached broad agreement on all of the union’s in-school safety concerns. But in an email sent to district parents on Jan. 26, the district noted the union is “now demanding that in order for CPS to return to in-person learning, their members must be vaccinated ahead of other city residents.”  Teachers are currently eligible for vaccinations, but the district’s plan includes inoculating teachers in mid-February at school-based sites.

Opposition to reopening clearly isn’t solely about safety. There’s more going on.

CTU’s strategy: To “spread the new gospel” of teacher union strike power

CTU proudly displays a 2019 Vox article on its website claiming that CTU was behind a rash of teacher strikes between 2012 and 2019 – and demonstrated for those unions they could “put things on the table that hadn’t been on the table before.”

After its strike ended in 2012, “union leaders planned town halls in other cities across the country, in New York and Cleveland, San Francisco and Tampa, to spread the new gospel.”

The article credits CTU with laying the groundwork for strikes in Los Angeles, West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Oakland, Denver, Kentucky and “elsewhere.”

“All owed a debt to Chicago,” it claims.

As for the West Virginia strike, the article notes, “Strikes are technically illegal in their right-to-work state, but they walked out anyway.”

CTU tested the waters further with a one-day strike in 2016, which the labor board deemed likely illegal. In 2019, it walked out again, leaving students outside their classrooms for another 11 days. The contract coming out of that strike cost Chicago property taxpayers an average of an additional $80 per year.

Now it appears CTU is flexing its muscles once again, this time opposing school reopenings and pushing its strike power farther than it’s gone before.

On Jan. 24, CTU members passed a resolution refusing to work in person. Teachers who were scheduled to report to their schools on Jan. 25 to prepare for elementary students’ Feb. 1 return, along with others who had already been in school since earlier in January teaching the district’s preschool and special education students, pledged to stay home and only work remotely.

The resolution also promises a subsequent strike should the district retaliate by locking teachers out of their remote teaching platforms.

The union’s refusal to report to school has forced the district to cancel in-person learning for the 3,000 preschool and special education students who had already been meeting in schools.

One problem for CTU: its actions are likely illegal under Illinois labor laws.

The Illinois Educational Public Labor Relations Act allows for teacher strikes, but it puts in place certain factors that must be met first.

One requirement: there cannot be a collective bargaining agreement in place between the teachers’ union and school.

And there is, indeed, a collective bargaining agreement in place. Signed in 2019 after the strike that kept kids out of school for 11 days, it was “a historic contract where everyone thought we had bought labor peace for five years,” Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune. And not only that, but the contract itself prohibits strikes and lockouts during its term.

What’s more, there is no provision in Illinois labor law that allows a strike over alleged safety concerns while under contract. There is a process to file a complaint for an unfair labor practice, which could include a safety issue, but it does not include the option to strike.

While refusing to report to work in person may not be termed an official “strike” by CTU, it certainly is a distinction without a difference.

And that appears to be the union’s plan. It intends to push their strike power to places it’s never been before, including illegal strike actions. It wants to set the stage for other unions to follow, even if strikes are prohibited in their states.

And it is determined to once again “put things on the table” – this time prohibited actions – “that hadn’t been on the table before.”

If CTU gets away with an illegal strike, others will follow

Whether CTU’s refusal to go to work – and its potential subsequent “strike” – are illegal under state law could end up before the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.

But by then, the damage will already be done. Kids will have been outside a classroom even longer.

It’s possible CPS could ask the labor board to punish CTU for engaging in an illegal strike. It has previously asked the labor board to award it compensation for the costs to taxpayers for an alleged illegal strike, as well as attorneys’ fees and costs.

But that’s nothing to a union that brought in nearly $34 million in its 2018-2019 fiscal year, according to a report it filed with the Department of Labor in November.

If CTU can commit what is likely an illegal strike with nothing more than a slap on the wrist, it will encourage other teachers’ unions to go on strike even where prohibited.

It pushes the boundaries of what is allowed.

And that will be devastating to the nation’s public schoolchildren.

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