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Potential repeal of key education law could throw wrench into CPS reopening plan

A 25-year-old, one-page section of an Illinois law governing educational labor that limits the Chicago Teachers Union’s bargaining rights could be repealed as soon as this weekend in Springfield.

Some CPS schools are scheduled to reopen Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A 25-year-old, one-page section of an Illinois law governing educational labor that limits the Chicago Teachers Union’s bargaining rights could be repealed as soon as this week in Springfield, a move that would mark a win for the union after a long lobbying fight.

A repeal could have serious short-term implications for Chicago Public Schools’ reopening plans if the bill passes and is signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker — and have a significant long-term impact on the CTU’s relationship with CPS.

The repeal bill was passed in the Illinois House in March 2019, and it appears likely the Senate will follow suit in the week ahead — though it’s unclear if the governor will immediately sign it. A Pritzker spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who campaigned on repealing this part of the law, is now concerned about those prospects. In a letter sent to state senators Friday, she wrote that a repeal “at this critical time would impair our efforts to reopen Chicago Public Schools and jeopardize our fiscal and educational gains.”

Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, passed in 1995, only covers unions negotiating with Chicago Public Schools — all other districts in the state are not affected. The section limits the bargaining power of the CTU — and other unions that represent school support staff — to bread-and-butter labor issues such as pay and benefits. It allows 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.

The law was inspired by three decades of labor strife capped by five teacher strikes in the 1980s as a way to curb the CTU’s power and move the school system under mayoral control. The law was passed at a unique time in Illinois politics when Republicans ran the show.

Democrat Miguel del Valle, now president of Chicago’s Board of Education and then a state senator, called the bill at the time the worst piece of education legislation he’d ever seen.

In the union’s eyes, a repeal of Section 4.5 would see the CTU regain the same rights all other Illinois districts enjoy and a new advantage in its school reopening fight. In the city’s view, labor peace could again become fleeting and plans to reopen schools could be in danger.

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 under Section 4.5 — so it wasn’t clear the CTU’s accusation that CPS violated labor law by failing to negotiate was valid.

If Section 4.5 is repealed — it would need 30 votes in the senate during the General Assembly’s lame duck session between Sunday and Wednesday — and the governor immediately signs off, CPS would almost certainly be forced to reach an agreement with the CTU before it can move ahead with its own plans. The union has said it doesn’t trust CPS to make its schools safe on its own. The first students return Monday, and thousands more are due back Feb. 1.

Kurt Hilgendorf, the CTU’s political director, said Section 4.5 has a “25-year history of being inequitable, discriminatory and really problematic for school governance.”

“There was a massive increase in class size across the district,” Hilgendorf said. “There was a massive decline in the number of Black teachers in Chicago — it went from 50% around 2000 to barely over 20% today.

“You had a whole series of issues that had been going on well in advance of the pandemic, and the fact that we need to come to a reopening agreement is just the latest urgent reason why we need to pass the bill.”

Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Local 73, the union that represents 7,500 school support staff, said a repeal of Section 4.5 would prevent future “debacles” like outsourcing janitorial and nursing services — both of which have proven to be costly mistakes for CPS that the district has recently tried to solve.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter and Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea also sent letters to Senate President Don Harmon this past week expressing their strong support for a repeal. The Chicago Federation of Labor has an ownership stake in Sun-Times Media.

Lightfoot, in her letter, credited Section 4.5 with bringing labor peace, improved finances and increased student achievement. She also explained all the ways the city has tried to make schools safe for in-person classes and told state senators that “now is not the time to change the rules of engagement.”

“To repeal 4.5 at this sensitive moment injects uncertainty into reopening negotiations when we can least afford it,” she wrote. “Both CPS and CTU leadership need to come to the table in good faith. The General Assembly’s elimination of Section 4.5 at this critical juncture will irreparably change that dynamic.”

Lightfoot said she recognizes the proposed repeal has broad support, “but the circumstances have changed dramatically” under the pandemic. At the very least, the mayor urged, senators should ensure implementation of any changes is delayed until the expiration of the CTU’s contract in 2024.

Contributing: Rachel Hinton