Where are Chicago parents at the bargaining table?

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
February 9, 2021

Where are Chicago parents at the bargaining table?

With the Chicago Teachers Union finally deciding students can return to classrooms, parent groups are clamoring to be heard. Unfortunately, Illinois law prohibits them from having much say about schools reopening.

The Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools engaged in a caustic negotiation over returning to in-person learning, with the deal finally winning approval from 25,000 rank-and-file union members Feb. 9.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot acknowledged the cost to families of the prolonged dispute: “This has been a very tough process for everybody in the CPS ecosystem, notably our students and their parents. I will do everything I can to make sure that they have a seat at the table on anything that relates to their education and the education of their children.”

But the reality is parents and students don’t have a say.

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act protects unions’ rights. And those unions don’t represent the interests of parents or students. They aren’t receiving dues or fees from parents. They exist solely to represent teachers.

If union members approve, the proposal would have preschool and cluster students return Feb. 11 with subsequent K-8 grades returning on a tiered basis between Mar. 1  and March 8. High school students are not currently scheduled to return to in-person learning.

CTU’s worry that classrooms are unsafe is not shared by most in the scientific and education communities.

“Vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Feb. 2. Both the CDC and UNICEF, which gathered evidence from 191 countries, report school reopenings cannot be linked to COVID-19 infection spikes.

Seven of the nation’s 10 largest school districts have resumed classroom instruction at some point during the school year, with an eighth poised to follow. In Chicago, 40,000 parochial, charter and public school students have been safely in class since fall.

“Other Catholic schools have been open. Suburban schools have been open or recently opened… to know that a school a few blocks away from my house has in-person learning saddens me as to why my children cannot participate in in-person learning also,” CPS parent Al Molina said.

A number of parent groups have emerged during the crisis, raising the issue of Illinois parents lacking rights during a labor dispute. Here is what parents should know:

The state’s collective bargaining laws are about unions – not parents

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act governs the relationship between teachers’ unions and educational employers. It states, “It is the purpose of this Act to regulate labor relations between educational employers and educational employees, including the designation of educational employee representatives, negotiation of wages, hours and other conditions of employment and resolution of disputes arising under collective bargaining agreements.”

Nowhere in the section laying out the purpose of the Act does it mention the wellbeing of either parents or students. The injury that can be caused to the “public” by unresolved labor disputes is mentioned only once.

What’s more, the Act includes a section on the rights of the employee and union, as well as a section on the employer’s rights.

There is no section protecting parents’ or students’ rights.

When it comes to bargaining, only the employer and the union have a place at the table

The Act designates the teachers’ chosen union as the “exclusive bargaining representative.” Only the “educational employer and the exclusive bargaining representative have the duty to bargain collectively,” another section provides. Collective bargaining itself is defined as “the performance of the mutual obligations of the educational employer and the representative of the educational employees to meet at reasonable times and confer in good faith….”

It could be argued that the employer is at the table on behalf of parents, students and taxpayers. But that claim ignores the conflict of interest inherently present during negotiations between public employers and public-sector unions.

Public-sector unions pour millions of dollars into the election campaigns of their employers.

In essence, public-sector unions hire their own bosses – i.e., those government leaders sitting opposite them at the bargaining table.

Parents and their children are hardly on the same level. They can’t compete with the money unions pour into candidates’ campaigns.

The union represents the teachers alone. No one is at the table speaking solely for the interests of students and parents.

The collective bargaining laws favor unions over parents

Other aspects of the state’s labor laws compound the helplessness parents are feeling. School districts in most of the state are required to bargain over “wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment.” Virtually any subject can be negotiated and put into a teacher union contract.

Currently, the law includes a restriction holding that CPS is not bound to negotiate with CTU over some subjects, such as hours and places of instruction. But that could change soon if Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs House Bill 2275, which repeals the current restriction.

That’s a problem for the children within CPS, where CTU prides itself as the vanguard of a rash of nationwide teachers’ strikes in recent years.

After all, the more subjects there are over which to bargain, the more room there is for disagreement. And the more room there is for disagreement, the more possible issues over which to go on strike. That’s bad news for children in a district where the union has been poised to go on strike for the fourth time in just nine years.

And finally, there is no transparency in the negotiation process. Bargaining happens behind closed doors. The Act explicitly excludes collective bargaining negotiations from the Illinois Open Meetings Act.

In other words, parents and other members of the public have no idea – and no right to know – what goes on when an employer and union are negotiating. They don’t find out what is in a contract until the contract is a done deal. By then, it is too late for parents or the taxpayers who will fund the contract to react.

If CPS parents are feeling left out of the process, there is a reason: they are.

“Do I feel cast aside? Yes.” CPS parent Sarah Sachen said.

If parents want a seat at the table, the law must be changed

The law must be changed if parents want someone at the table representing their interests.

Until that or other reforms are enacted to the state’s labor laws – such as limiting the subjects over which unions can negotiate or breaking down barriers that keep bargaining sessions a secret – students and their families will always take a back seat to teachers’ unions.

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