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Chicago Teachers Union might take strike vote this week, sources say

The union is expected to convene its 700-member House of Delegates on Wednesday to discuss a work stoppage or other collective action.

Banners in support of the elementary school teachers hang outside Brentano Elementary School as teachers instruct virtual classes during a protest against returning to in-person teaching outside of Brentano Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
Banners in support of the elementary school teachers hang outside Brentano Elementary School as teachers lead virtual classes during a protest against returning to in-person teaching outside of Brentano Elementary School in Chicago, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file

The Chicago Teachers Union is expected to vote this week on a proposal that would see its members collectively refuse to work in-person as teachers and staff continue to protest orders to return to schools they don’t believe are safe in a pandemic, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times.

The union is expected to convene its 700-member House of Delegates on Wednesday to discuss the resolution before the 25,000 rank-and-file members of the CTU could begin to vote on the measure as early as the next day, according to sources who asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak about the union’s plans.

If three-quarters of CTU members vote in favor — as required by state law for a strike authorization — teachers would likely take the collective action next Monday, sources said, when Chicago Public Schools officials are expecting thousands of kindergarten through eighth grade teachers and staff to report to work ahead of a Feb. 1 reopening for elementary and middle schools.

The resolution doesn’t initially call for a traditional strike that would resemble the 11-day one in the fall of 2019. Instead of a full work stoppage, teachers would collectively refuse to report to work in-person but continue to teach remotely. The resolution then allows for a strike if CPS pursues a lockout of its teachers who don’t report to schools.

It remains to be seen whether CPS would lock out all those teachers as it has done with about 90 preschool and special education cluster program teachers and staff who have not gone to their schools as ordered this month. The continuation of classes without the district’s teaching force would appear impossible.

The CTU’s collective bargaining agreement, signed after the 2019 strike, has a clause that prevents the union from striking for the term of the contract and the district from locking out its workers. The union’s move to collectively not show up to work in-person while not entirely going on strike is seen by CTU leaders as a way to force CPS’ hand in negotiations over reopening conditions.

Sources familiar with the city’s thinking would not say whether the district would pursue a lockout if teachers withheld their services. City officials view the potential strike vote as “irresponsible and a violation of both the law and the contract,” one source said, and an attempt to strong-arm CPS to cave to the union’s demands.

“Ultimately, we want to educate, we don’t want to lock out and not pay,” a source said. “Hopefully they don’t put us in that position.”

Unionwide support for a strike isn’t as guaranteed this time around because of several factors, including concerns for students and parents who are already struggling with pandemic schooling and the potential loss of income and benefits during the public health emergency. And a large portion of the CTU, almost all high school teachers and staff, would essentially be striking in solidarity with their elementary colleagues since high schools are not yet reopening.

The CTU similarly floated a strike vote over the summer when Mayor Lori Lightfoot looked to reopen schools at the start of the fall, but the city backtracked on those plans hours after news of a potential vote broke.

The union’s vote this time would come a week after state lawmakers repealed a provision in a 25-year-old educational labor law that had taken away many of the CTU’s bargaining rights. The union had long lobbied for the provision — which only applied to unions at CPS and no other districts in the state — to be repealed. Most recently, CTU was especially interested in regaining its rights during school reopening negotiations.

The mostly Republican opponents of the repeal were concerned the union could use the victory to move forward with frequent strikes as it did in the 1980s before the law passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature. State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Democrat and the lead sponsor of the repeal bill, assured his colleagues on the Senate floor last week that CTU leaders had pointed to their no-strike clause as proof they would not immediately go on strike. Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not yet signed the bill but has indicated he plans to do so.

Asked about a potential strike Tuesday, schools chief Janice Jackson said at a morning appearance at Belmont-Cragin Elementary that CPS is “incredibly interested” in reaching a speedy agreement with the CTU over a safe reopening.

Jackson said she’s willing to compromise on which teachers are asked to report for in-person work by finding a happy medium between “this is what everybody has to do and, you know, people can choose to come to work or not.”

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson talks with parents Tuesday at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the Northwest Side.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson talks with parents Tuesday at Belmont-Cragin Elementary School on the Northwest Side.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“We are not against the union,” Jackson said. “Our teachers are the bedrock of our schools. We cannot do the work that we need to do without the instructors. But at this juncture, we have to come together and not debate whether or not we have in-person schooling, but debate how to do it safely.

“I have every reason to believe we’ll be ready for Feb. 1 provided everything falls into place with our teachers.”

The school system, the nation’s third largest, has faced a shaky return to classrooms this month. A few dozen COVID-19 cases were reported at schools around the city, and at least one cluster developed at an Uptown elementary school, forcing eight staff members, including the principal and assistant principal, into quarantine.

Meanwhile, about half of the first group teachers ordered back to schools two weeks ago refused to return to their classrooms because of health and safety concerns. The number of staff reporting to work rose to about 75% by the time their students returned last week.

The district expected about 6,000 preschoolers and children with complex disabilities to return to schools in the first phase of reopening — about a third of those eligible — though it’s unclear how many showed up last week. Many schools reported families backing out at the last minute and deciding to stay home. CPS officials have said they’ll release student attendance figures this week.

Jackson was at Belmont-Cragin for a roundtable discussion with six parents at the school about their decisions whether or not to send their children back. Jackson said the goal of the event was to amplify the voices of parents who have opted for in-person learning because their perspectives have been “drowned out.” The parents said returning to school would help their kids with socialization, the physical challenges of sitting at a computer all day and access to their teachers — despite concerns about school safety.

“I cannot promise a COVID-free environment,” Jackson said. “No one can. If anybody tells you that, run in a different direction, they’re lying. But what I can tell you is, that as a school system, we have planned for every possible scenario. And after a week of instruction, and this is only a week, I feel even more confident in the planning that we put in place.”