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CPS refusing to allow teachers union to inspect schools, bargain over reopening, complaint says

The Chicago Teachers Union’s claim is its third unfair labor practice complaint this academic year.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson speaks during a press conference on the first day of the semester, which has featured all remote learning so far. The Chicago Teachers Union filed an unfair labor complaint over the district’s plan to start reopening next month. Sun-Times file

The Chicago Teachers Union is accusing city officials of illegally refusing to bargain over school reopening conditions during the coronavirus pandemic as a return to classrooms for some students is expected next month.

The union’s claim comes in its third unfair labor practice complaint this academic year and also alleges Chicago Public Schools officials have canceled several scheduled appointments for a union-hired inspector to visit school buildings and conduct air quality checks.

“CPS today formally told us that it is going to refuse to bargain with us over the decision as to when and how to safely resume in-person instruction,” said CTU deputy general counsel Thad Goodchild. “That decision is a mandatory subject of bargaining under Illinois law.

“Their position is absurd,” he said.

Goodchild pointed to an “identical, parallel situation” in August at Western Illinois University, where the faculty union alleged the university refused to bargain the terms of its reopening. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which will review the CTU’s case, sided with the union at WIU.

The CTU in its complaint is seeking injunctive relief to force CPS to resume good-faith bargaining. If an injunction is granted, CPS would be ordered to reach an agreement with the union on several issues before it can proceed with any reopening plans. Schools officials confirmed last week their plans to bring preschoolers and some special education students back to classrooms as early as November.

The CTU’s stance is that there are countless health and safety factors that go into a reopening decision, while CPS views the issue more narrowly and one that falls under its sole discretion.

If the labor relations board agrees with the union, bargaining could put any planned reopening on hold for weeks as the two sides work through their differences.

“Because CPS has refused to engage us in good faith since this summer, yeah, we’re further behind than we could be,” Goodchild said. “But Boston and L.A., most prominently, have reached agreements with their teachers unions. And frankly, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We can draw from those agreements. We just need a willing partner in CPS to do it.”

The CTU’s contract does require workplace inspections if the union believes it’s being told to work in unsafe conditions, but it says those should be done by CPS and reviewed together with the CTU. The contract does not give the CTU rights to its own inspections.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in an emailed statement that it’s the union, not the district, that is refusing to discuss a reopening plan.

“We are disheartened that CTU continues to obstruct and mislead the public about the necessary planning measures needed to prepare for a potential return to safe in-person learning,” Bolton said.

CPS has contracted third-party environmental hygienists to conduct air quality inspections and will make their findings public once they’re completed and before any in-person learning takes place, Bolton said. She added that it’s false that CPS has refused to negotiate and accused the union of “seeking the power to veto a potential decision” to return to classrooms.