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CTU delegates approve walkout, send vote to full union membership

The union’s House of Delegates approved the measure Wednesday with 84% of delegates in favor.

Chicago Teachers Union members and their supporters march and protest in Pilsen Monday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union has moved one step closer to defying Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plan, passing a resolution through its governing body that would see all union members refuse to work in-person until an agreement is reached with the district on health and safety protocols.

The CTU’s 600-member House of Delegates approved the measure Wednesday with 84% in favor, sending it to the union’s 25,000 rank-and-file teachers and staff for a vote that will be held remotely through Saturday night. The resolution requires approval by a simple majority of the union’s full membership.

The move to continue working from home Monday, when thousands of kindergarten through eighth grade teachers and staff are expected to report to their schools, would represent a de facto strike as a last-ditch effort to force CPS to address workers’ concerns. This collective labor action, however, wouldn’t necessarily resemble a traditional walkout — and union leadership has been careful not to call the initial move a strike — since educators intend to continue working remotely.

“In response to serious unfair labor practices and the lack of a safe reopening agreement, do you authorize the CTU to conduct remote work only, starting on January 25?” the resolution asks CTU members who will take a vote in the coming days.

“In addition, in the event that CPS retaliates against or locks out members as a result, do you authorize a strike?”

Typically, 75% of the CTU’s rank-and-file members would need to vote in favor of a walkout for a strike to be authorized. In this case, only a simple majority approval would be required, a CTU spokeswoman said, because members would be walking out over an alleged unfair labor practice — CPS’ supposed refusal to negotiate.

It remains to be seen if CPS officials would lock out all teachers from remote work and withhold their pay as has been done with about 90 preschool and special education teachers and clinicians who have refused to report to their schools as ordered this month. A lockout would have the same effect as a strike — it would be impossible for classes to continue regardless of the venue.

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.

CPS spokeswoman Emily Bolton said in a statement after the vote that the district over several months “has come to the table in good faith, and we remain committed to reaching a mutually acceptable agreement.”

“CTU leadership wants to close schools that are already safely open to students, and cancel in-person learning for the tens of thousands of students who are relying on their dedicated educators to provide in-person learning in the coming weeks,” Bolton said. “Stripping tens of thousands of students of the opportunity for safe, in-person learning is not an option or a viable solution for families who have been planning to return since December.”

About 3,800 teachers and staff were expected back to schools earlier this month ahead of the return of preschoolers and students in special education cluster programs this week. Three-quarters of workers have shown up to their schools. CPS has still not said how many of the 6,000 students who were expected to return actually went back.

Thousands more educators are expected back on Monday, a week ahead of the reopening of elementary and middle schools. CPS officials anticipate another 71,000 children back in classrooms Feb. 1, about one-third of all K-8 students.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said at a morning news conference that teachers are “making decisions that prioritize their health [and] ... their mortality.”

“Members, actual human beings, including students and their families, are quarantining in this moment,” she said. “Human beings are built for survival, and what we are experiencing with the educators connected to the Chicago Public Schools is their involuntary response to survive.”

Despite months of negotiations, CPS and the CTU have not appeared close to an agreement on how to reopen the district’s hundreds of schools during the pandemic. The union’s primary focus in recent weeks has been reaching a compromise on which of its members would be required to work in-person, and clearer guidelines on the criteria for pods of students, entire schools or the district to close.

Schools chief Janice Jackson said this week that CPS is “incredibly interested” in reaching a speedy agreement with the CTU and is willing to find middle ground. Jackson said that the first week of school — despite several challenges, including staff no-shows, dozens of cases and one school with a cluster — gave her more confidence that CPS is ready for in-person learning. CPS has spent $44 million on disinfectants, PPE, air purifiers and other measures to ready schools for the return of staff and students.