City Colleges considering strike over coronavirus concerns

Union leaders plan to meet Friday to discuss next steps.

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Cook County College Teachers Union President Tony Johnston, speaks to reporters outside the Thompson Center, after the governor announced closures of public and private schools statewide due to COVID-19, Friday, March 13, 2020.

Cook County College Teachers Union President Tony Johnston, speaks to reporters outside the Thompson Center, after the governor announced closures of public and private schools statewide due to COVID-19, Friday, March 13, 2020.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Days after the Chicago Teachers Union threatened to strike over concerns about returning to schools during the coronavirus pandemic, the unions representing workers at the City Colleges of Chicago are trying a similar tactic.

“It’s certainly a good indication that when an administration or district comes up against reality, in this case [Chicago Public Schools] made the right decision. We’re wanting the City Colleges to do the same thing,” said Tony Johnston, president of Cook County College Teachers Union, which represents a total of about 1,900 faculty members, student advisors and other employees across the seven City Colleges.

Another 500 or so clerical staff could also potentially go on strike if the workers’ demands aren’t met. Although classes don’t begin until Aug. 24 — and most of them are being taught online in the fall — some employees returned to work Monday, including student advisors.

In a teleconference with a handful of employees and union leaders, Johnston said campuses lack basic protections against the coronavirus, including adequate plexiglass barriers, social distancing markings and masks.

“The plans and their implementation are deficient given the current conditions of this outbreak,” Johnston said. “The simple truth is our colleges, much like K-12 schools, were not made to deliver instruction and student services under these pandemic conditions.”

The unions are urging the administration to continue operating the colleges as they did in March, with mostly online services available to students, until they have a “safe plan” in place.

Union leaders are expected to discuss a vote of no-confidence in the administration on Friday, which could potentially lead to a “safety strike” shortly before or on the day classes begin.

“Ensuring the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff, and supporting our students in reaching their academic goals are our top priorities,” Katheryn Hayes, a City Colleges spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We recognize that while some of our students can take advantage of remote services, some students with little to no prior college or technology experience are best served in-person. ... Our approach to re-opening has been reviewed by experts from the Chicago Department of Public Health, and our plans follow the standards and recommendations of the Illinois and Chicago Departments of Public Health, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

City Colleges faculty last went on strike back in 2004, when contract talks broke down.

Earlier this week, Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that all fall classes would be taught online, abruptly shifting from a plan that offered students in the school district a combination of in-class and online instruction. At the time, Lightfoot said the shift had to do with worsening public health conditions and parent concerns — not pressure from the CTU.

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