Chicago Teachers Union notches huge victory in bid to expand bargaining power

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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 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.

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, giving the union more leverage as it battles Chicago Public Schools over reopening — and in future disputes.

Illinois Senators voted 38 to 16 to repeal Section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, which would force city officials to have to bargain with the union over school conditions such as class sizes. Because it passed the House in 2019, it now heads to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk.

If Pritzker immediately signs the repeal bill, there could be major implications for Chicago Public Schools’ planned reopening, which began Monday for special education and pre-Kindergarten students and is scheduled for Feb. 1 for other K-8 students. A Pritzker spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment last week on whether he plans to sign it.

In an impassioned speech before the vote, Sen. Celina Villanueva, D-Chicago, a CPS graduate 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 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, passed in 1995, limits the bargaining power of the CTU — and other unions that represent school support staff at Chicago Public Schools — 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.

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.

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.

Union officials lobbied for years to repeal the law — city officials came out strongly against the change.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot last week said a repeal “at this critical time would impair our efforts to reopen Chicago Public Schools and jeopardize our fiscal and educational gains.”

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.

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January 11, 2021 at 01:40PM

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