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CTU notches huge victory in bid to expand bargaining power

Illinois Senators voted to repeal a section of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act that limited issues CTU could bargain over. It now heads to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk, although the governor has not said if he plans to sign it.

Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates and CTU President Jesse Sharkey lead thousands of striking union members on a march through the Loop, Thursday afternoon, Oct. 17, 2019.
Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Stacy Davis Gates and CTU President Jesse Sharkey lead thousands of striking union members on a march through the Loop last fall. The union just won a huge victory in Springfield expanding its bargaining power.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Illinois lawmakers have voted to repeal a provision in an educational labor law that for the past 25 years has limited the Chicago Teachers Union’s bargaining rights, marking a major win for the union and new leverage as it battles Chicago Public Schools over reopening — and in future disputes.

Illinois Senators voted 38 to 16 on Monday to repeal Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which will force city officials to bargain with the union over a wider range of issues than is currently mandated — once it gets the governor’s signature.

If Gov. J.B. Pritzker immediately signs the repeal bill — which already passed the House in 2019 — there could be major implications for CPS’ planned reopening, which began Monday for some students.

Pritzker indicated Monday he would sign the bill, which he said he supported even before becoming a candidate.

“That bill, I know, is coming to my desk, and I’ll obviously take a serious look at it, but you know where I’ve stood for several years already,” Pritzker said.

Union officials lobbied for years to repeal the law. The CTU said in a statement that the bill passed “because of the tireless work of our rank and file members, and the vital support of a broad coalition of grassroots allies, our students and families.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on repealing Section 4.5 but wrote in a letter to state senators last week that a repeal “at this critical time would impair our efforts to reopen Chicago Public Schools and jeopardize our fiscal and educational gains.” A mayor’s office spokeswoman said in a statement after the vote that Lightfoot would “strongly endorse” the bill with two caveats: the repeal goes into effect at the end of the CTU’s contract in 2024, and the city maintains its right not to bargain over the length of the school day and year.

Senators in a later 44 to 14 vote passed an amendment that would keep school day and year length out of CTU’s bargaining rights — a compromise the union had said it would accept. That bill will head back to the House for approval. City officials were still working to convince the legislature to delay implementation of the Section 4.5 repeal, but those prospects looked bleak.

Section 4.5 of the IELRA, passed in 1995, limits the bargaining power of the CTU — and other unions that represent school support staff at CPS — to bread-and-butter labor issues such as pay and benefits. The law does not apply to unions representing workers in other school districts in Illinois.

The provision allowed CPS to avoid negotiations over several school-related topics such as class sizes, staff assignments, charter schools, subcontracting, layoffs, and the length of the school day and year. In school reopening negotiations at other districts around the state and country, agreements on those issues have been key to a stable return to classrooms. Union leaders have blamed Section 4.5 for larger class sizes, a decline in Black teachers and mismanaged custodial and nursing subcontracts.

In an impassioned speech before the vote, CPS graduated Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, said “this is about equity” in a district that has many schools with more than 30 kids in a classroom.

“It is infuriating to have people say that CTU doesn’t have a right to bargain over classroom sizes, and I beg each and every one of you to think about this: when you were in elementary school, … how many people were in your classrooms?” Villanueva said.

But Sen. Dale Righter, R-Mattoon, urged a no vote on the repeal, saying, “I’ve seen the prolific nature with regards to tendencies of the Chicago Teachers Union to strike before the 1995 law came into place. … There’s not another school district in the state that chose to go on strike more often than the Chicago Teachers Union.”

Section 4.5 was cited last month by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board as a key reason why an injunction sought by the CTU to stop CPS from resuming in-person classes could not be granted. The issues the union wanted to negotiate over, the board said, weren’t mandatory subjects of bargaining.

SEIU Local 73, the union that represents 7,500 school support staff, strongly supported the repeal, as did Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter and Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea. The Chicago Federation of Labor has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.