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Toxic CPS-CTU feud simmers under surface of latest reopening talks

ANALYSIS: The continued bickering between the union and district, despite vows by both sides to collaborate, has become exhausting for families and educators.

Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks during the teachers strike in 2019.
Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey speaks during the teachers strike in 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson shared a rosy view earlier this month of the district’s relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union.

“It is a collaborative process,” she said of negotiations over a plan to reopen high schools, which have remained closed during the pandemic. “There is a different tone and tenor than it was during the first step of negotiations around this. And I hope that that’s comforting to parents.”

Families know that initial phase of bargaining all too well.

Earlier this year, the district and union went blow for blow for two months. A second teachers strike in as many years felt inevitable at times but was ultimately avoided. As negotiations on high schools began, students, parents, teachers, the union and the district hoped the two sides could move forward and mend a relationship that had become perhaps the most toxic in the nation between a school system and its union.

The weeks since haven’t been as bitter, but the tension is still apparent.

Frustrations boil over

Take, for example, the frustration that boiled over last week.

CPS leadership sent an email to families and staff early in the week with a few small updates, including a “target” high school reopening date of April 19. The district made clear negotiations with the union were “productive” and ongoing, but parents have been asking for more information for weeks.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks during a press conference in January where she announced that the district would continue with the return to in-person learning despite staff’s concerns.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson speaks during a press conference in January where she announced the district would continue with the return to in-person learning despite staff’s concerns.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A few hours later, the CTU released a statement that said, in part: “We have no agreement.” The union criticized the district’s announcement as “more unilateralism” and accused CPS of distorting the status of negotiations.

The only problem? CTU President Jesse Sharkey had reviewed the email and suggested edits earlier that afternoon.

The district’s labor relations chief, Kaitlyn Girard, told Sharkey in an email hours earlier that “we have drafted what we think is a non-controversial overview of our discussions to share with families later today. ... Please let us know your thoughts on this language, we can also discuss during our meeting this afternoon.”

Sharkey provided two suggested changes, both of which the district made.

And how did reporters find out about that email exchange? At 11 p.m. the day the email was sent, in a highly unusual move, a CPS spokeswoman sent education reporters a screenshot of the conversation — this from a district that regularly delays and denies public information requests. CPS wanted to draw negative attention to Sharkey’s inconsistent private actions and public message.

Trench warfare

Instead of backing down and de-escalating, both CPS and CTU are continuing to play the game that has caused so much turmoil over the past two years. It seems they’ve had a hard time forgetting the 2019 strike, or the late Friday night mayoral press conference that trashed the union last month, or the CTU’s vote of no-confidence in Mayor Lori Lightfoot after the reopening agreement was reached.

“There have been examples of this, where the parties, their disagreements just kind of convert into trench warfare, where they’re dug in, and the way in which they’re relating to one another suggests these real deep divides,” said Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois who has studied CPS-CTU negotiations and wrote a book on the 2012 teachers strike.

“What it begins to do is raise lots of questions about the larger institutional settings in which everyone connected to it suffers.”

Earlier this month, three weeks after nearly 70% of CTU members voted to approve the K-8 deal, Sharkey expressed strong confidence the union would reach a similar agreement for high schools.

And what about the one-third of teachers with work-from-home accommodations for third quarter? Should they go back to classrooms in the fourth quarter if they’re vaccinated?

“Provided it’s medically OK, if somebody gets vaccinated, yeah they should teach in-person if there’s a need for that,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times in an interview. “I don’t think that’s a problem.”

Sharkey said “it’s a little bit more complicated” if a teacher received an accommodation for a medically vulnerable household member because there is a risk in bringing the virus home since it’s not known yet whether vaccinations prevent transmission. He also said he was frustrated that CPS didn’t know how many workers had received a shot.

Fast forward seven days, and it was a different tune.

In an email to members, Sharkey said teachers shouldn’t respond to a CPS survey asking workers to disclose whether they’ve been vaccinated; he instead insisted it be negotiated with CPS. Vaccinations were among the union’s biggest demands in K-8 bargaining. Last week, Jackson said only 41% of CPS staff have responded, and she was “disappointed” to learn of Sharkey’s message to members.

Then in a CBS2 Chicago story published one week after the Sun-Times interview, Sharkey said teachers weren’t fully on board with disclosing their vaccination status because some feared losing their accommodations.

Last week, when the district announced a provider had misallocated 6,000 doses meant for CPS staff, Sharkey ripped the district for the “failure, on multiple levels, from the people who run our school district” — despite the fact CPS relented to union demands to make sure all teachers were offered vaccines in the first place and said no teacher will miss out on a dose due to the situation.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot discusses the ongoing negotiations and plans for returning to School during a press conference to address the ongoing dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS over whether schools are safe enough to return to at 42 W Madison St. in the Loop, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Mayor Lori Lightfoot discusses the ongoing negotiations and plans for returning to school during a press conference to address the ongoing dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union and CPS over whether schools are safe enough to return to at 42 W. Madison St. in the Loop, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

CPS and the mayor, of course, have had their own hand in stoking the fire. In an interview with The New York Times after the K-8 agreement, Lightfoot again compared the CTU to the police union and claimed schools never would have opened without mayoral control of the district. In other interviews she blamed the CTU for parents becoming fed up and leaving the district and city altogether.

Many CPS families — especially Black, Latino and special education parents — appreciate the CTU’s advocacy and recognize many needed improvements in the district would not have come without the CTU’s support.

And yet there’s a difference between fighting for a cause and unnecessarily needling.

“Black and Brown working class communities in Chicago ... they have deep grievances against CPS,” Bruno said. “The idea of supporting what the union does is because they believe that the union brings generally good returns for those families.

“ ... [But] I don’t think there’s endless tolerance or patience for dysfunction. If there’s dysfunction and chaos, then obviously those families will be impacted.”

Burning down the village

The school system has always been political. And the union — after building a grassroots political movement over the past decade and now regaining more of its previously stripped bargaining rights — is as mighty as ever.

But at a certain point, the politics become exhausting for families and educators, and it certainly no longer benefits the children. Jackson and Sharkey have said so themselves. Yet neither side seems ready to accept that the situation has become untenable.

“You’re kind of burning down the village to win the war,” Bruno said.