Labor board denies teachers union’s attempt to halt return to CPS schools

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board on Thursday ruled in a split 2-1 vote against granting an injunction against the scheduled Jan. 4 return date for some staff.

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Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks prior to an August protest outside City Hall.

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A labor court on Thursday denied the Chicago Teachers Union’s attempt to delay Chicago Public Schools’ planned January reopening, a setback for the union that was looking to fully bargain with the district over the return to schools for the first time during the pandemic.

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board ruled in a split 2-1 vote against granting the CTU a preliminary injunction to halt the scheduled Jan. 4 return date for preschool and special education cluster program staff.

The union had charged the district with violating labor law by refusing to negotiate in good faith over a safe schools reopening and acting unilaterally in all its decisions. A trial was set for Jan. 26 for the case to be resolved, which is after hundreds of staffers and more than 6,000 students would have already returned.

The CTU’s request for injunctive relief asked for the reopening to be put on hold until the union could make its case at trial, with the goal of forcing the two sides to bargain to completion. With the injunction denied, the CTU said Thursday that it’ll ask for the trial to be moved up to next week and a final ruling to be made before Jan. 4.

“Without that timeline, CPS could be allowed to put people in danger with its unilateral plan that likely will end up being declared illegal after the fact,” the CTU said in a statement after the ruling. 

“In such case, all options will be on the table for our union to enforce our rights and protect the health, safety, and livelihoods of students, educators and all families.”

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement that “the district commends the IELRB for ruling in favor of the more than 77,000 CPS students whose families have asked to return to schools.”

“It’s time for the CTU to put students first and be supportive partners in the effort to safely reopen classrooms for the families who need us now more than ever,” Bolton said.

IELRB general counsel Ellen Strizak said in her recommendation to the board that it wasn’t clear the CTU’s 43 meetings with CPS since June have constituted bargaining sessions — meaning it’s unclear if CPS negotiated in bad faith — or that the reopening of schools during a pandemic is a permissive or mandatory subject of bargaining in the union’s collective bargaining agreement. She said the union’s request should be denied.

Acting board chair Lynne Sered disagreed, arguing health and safety in the workplace are mandatory subjects of bargaining and that CPS should be forced to negotiate with the union to ensure a safe workplace. Sered was in favor of siding with the union but was overruled by the other two board members, who said there isn’t enough evidence to warrant an injunction.

This is the second time in as many months that the CTU’s request for injunctive relief has ended in disappointment. The IELRB in November declined to issue a ruling because CPS at that time hadn’t set a return date, meaning there was nothing from which to provide injunctive relief. The board indicated it would be willing to hear the case again when CPS announced a date — which has since happened.

The CTU’s remaining option if the trial isn’t moved to next week is to decide whether to take some sort of labor action such as a strike — a possibility the union has discussed internally. If the union decides to go that route, a potential strike authorization vote could come in the next few weeks.

“Our union will have to have an internal discussion about what to do next if we can’t reach agreements on how to make our schools safe for everyone,” Sharkey told the school board Wednesday. “When we have those discussions, all options are going to be on the table.”

The union’s disputes with CPS are “going to make our union campaign in a way which is going to have very real consequences in this whole city,” he said.

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