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After Threatening Strike, Chicago Teachers Set “New Standard” With Safer School Reopening Plan

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After defying an order to return to school buildings they deemed unsafe, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has voted to approve a significantly revised plan to reopen elementary schools next month. On Tuesday, 13,681 CTU members (68% of those who participated) voted to approve the agreement, while 6,585 members voted against it. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) had attempted to unilaterally reopen K?8 schools on February 1 despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to do so safely, leading CTU members to vote late last month to disregard that directive and continue remote instruction. 

The standoff soon became a focal point in the growing national debate over sending children and teachers back into schools, demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety in the midst of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 470,000 people in the United States. 

As negotiations continued into the first week of February, Lightfoot accusedK?8 educators of making unreasonable demands while repeatedly threateningto lock them out of online learning platforms and dock their pay if they didn’t report in-person to school buildings. 

Facing the threat of a lock out, CTU promised to strike in response, and ultimately the mayor and CPS made multiple concessions. 

On February 7, Lightfoot and the union’s negotiating team reached a tentative framework for reopening elementary schools, which, on Tuesday, CTU membership voted to approve. There is still no plan on when to reopen high schools, but CPS has agreed to negotiate that question with the union. 

“Basic safety shouldn’t even be a negotiation, let alone a privilege?—?yet it is in Chicago, under this mayor,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said.

Under the new plan, in-person learning will now resume on March 1 for grades K?5 and on March 8 for grades 6?–?8?—?a full month later than what the mayor had originally demanded.

After the union called for a health metric to determine when in-person learning might have to be suspended again, CPS agreed to shut down school buildings in the event that citywide Covid cases increase for seven consecutive days at a rate one-fifth higher than the previous week.

The district also agreed not to force educators back into school buildings until after they have had an opportunity to be fully vaccinated, with a plan to vaccinate at least 1,500 CPS employees per week.

While CPS was originally planning only limited surveillance testing, it will now test 100% of in-person employees every week at schools in neighborhoods with the highest Covid rates, and 50% of employees at schools in all other neighborhoods.

In addition, after the school district arbitrarily denied telework accommodations to as many as 85% of teachers and staff who requested them because they live with a medically vulnerable person, CPS agreed to institute clear guidelines for determining when and how such accommodations will be granted.

Finally, the agreement immediately reinstates over 100 preschool and special education teachers and staff who had been docked salary and locked out of their virtual classrooms since early January after they defied a directive to return to school buildings. 

“No one sacrificed more in this struggle than our rank-and-file members who were locked out, docked pay or faced discipline, and we owe them our most profound thanks for making the impossible possible,” Sharkey said. ?“They made CPS finally negotiate. They delayed reopening. They cracked open the mayor’s hypocrisy.”

Lightfoot did not agree to provide backpay to the workers she locked out, something the CTU will continue pursuing through the grievance procedure. In the meantime, the union has established a GoFundMe campaign to financially support them.

While a majority of members accepted the negotiated reopening plan, the CTU made clear it does not endorse the way Lightfoot and CPS have handled the pandemic?—?with 90% of the union’s House of Delegates approving a rare vote of ?“no confidence” in the mayor and school district’s leadership.

“The work isn’t complete, and there are no victories in this moment. There is only surviving a pandemic,” the CTU tweeted.

Some of the teachers who opposed the plan said on social media that they do not believe it goes far enough on safety, nor do they believe it addresses the needs of the vast majority of CPS’s Black and Latino families who are optingto continue remote learning.

“I just voted no. I know a lot of people did amazing work to get CPS even to this point. We are talking about keeping people safe & alive. This plan does not do that. It doesn’t improve remote learning for parents either. I know that parents, teachers & students deserve better,” wrote high school teacher Dave Stieber.

“This plan is not what any of us deserve. Not us. Not our students. Not their families,” Sharkey said. ?“We got what we were able to take. CTU members fought hard and sacrificed for this, so we have to protect and use it.”

Though many in the union feel the plan is inadequate, education policy expert Brad Marianno told Chalkbeat Chicago that it’s the ?“most comprehensive agreement for reopening schools that we have seen around the country” and that it could set ?“a new standard for other districts.”

Teacher unions in other cities are already following the CTU’s example. Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers refused an order to return to school buildings, forcing the mayor to back off on reopening until an independent arbitrator reviews the situation. 

The agreement in Chicago comes the same week that retired CTU President Karen Lewis passed away after a long struggle with brain cancer. Lewis was instrumental in turning the union into a vehicle for social justice, leading a successful strike in 2012 that has since inspired numerous other teachers strikes, kicking off the Red for Ed movement and introducing a new generation of workers and activists to the power of unions.

“Karen would have been so proud of our rank and file: our unity, our democracy, our determination to fight for the common good, and the solidarity at the heart of our strength,” Sharkey said.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 10, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst.


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Chicago Teachers Are Showing the Country How to Fight an Unsafe Reopening

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As Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot presses ahead with a controversialplan to reopen elementary schools next Monday, the 25,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) may be headed into its third strike since 2012.

Closed since March because of the coronavirus crisis, K?8 schools are set to resume in-person classes on February 1, with parents having the option of sending their children back or continuing remote learning. The decision was made unilaterally by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) despite ongoing negotiations with the union over how to reopen safely.

Elementary teachers and staff were ordered to return to school buildings this week to prepare for the reopening. But citing safety concerns, 71% of CTU members voted over the weekend to defy that order and continue teaching remotely until an agreement is reached. 

Lightfoot has warned that educators who don’t report in-person by Monday may be locked out of online learning systems and docked pay. If that happens, the union is promising to go on strike.

“We are willing to keep teaching, but CPS has said they will lock us out,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. ?“Is the mayor creating a crisis just to get her way on a reopening date that ignores the risks in our schools and our neighborhoods?”

Coming 15 months after the CTU went on strike to demand Lightfoot keep her campaign promise of putting a nurse and social worker in every school, the confrontation is demonstrating the power of unions to fight for workers’ health and safety amid a pandemic that has killed over 425,000 people in the United States. As the incoming Biden administration attempts to get a handle on the pandemic, the CTU’s struggle is shaping the national discourse around what constitutes a safe way to reopen schools.

Reopening

The union is asking for weekly testing for teachers and students inside school buildings, a public health metric for determining when schools reopen or close, and the flexibility to allow teachers to return to schools after they’ve been vaccinated

“I think our members have been beyond reasonable,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates. ?“They are asking for a safe reopening. It’s not if we reopen, it’s how we reopen.”

Teachers just became eligible to receive Covid vaccinations this week. While educators in suburban Evanston and Skokie are already getting vaccinated, CTU members say CPS has not put forward a comprehensive plan to help them know when and where to receive vaccinations.

“This is the third largest school district in the United States, you would think they would have a real vaccination plan,” said Linda Perales, a special education teacher at Corkery Elementary in Little Village.

In contrast to CPS leaders, the head of the Los Angeles Unified School District?—?the nation’s second largest public school system?—?is insisting that in-person learning not resume until after teachers have been vaccinated.

When asked on Tuesday why she is refusing to wait until teachers can get vaccinated before reopening schools, Lightfoot appeared to pit teachers against frontline essential workers. ?“We also have others who have been out there every single day, working, putting themselves at risk,” she said. ?“How do we say to those folks, ?‘You have to go to the back of the line?’”

“We have been teaching effectively since March, almost one year, from the safety of our homes. We know that essential workers, mostly Black and Brown folks, have not had that privilege. They should be the ones that are prioritized for this vaccine,” said Perales. ?“But CPS: If you’re trying to force us back into the building, give us a real vaccination plan.”

The union is also demanding telework accommodations for teachers who live with medically vulnerable family members, but says CPS is nitpicking over what counts as a sufficiently serious underlying health condition.

“We’re literally going back and forth on if cancer is more serious than hypertension or diabetes in terms of granting accommodations,” Davis Gates said. ?“This shouldn’t be a fight.”

At Joliet Public Schools District 86, the school board recently voted unanimously to continue remote learning until the end of the school year. Notably, the members of the Joliet school board are elected to their positions, unlike the members of the Chicago Board of Education, who are handpicked by the mayor.

Equity

Lightfoot claims her reopening plan is a matter of equity for students of color, who she says are falling behind under remote learning. But only 31% of Latino families and 33.9% of Black families feel comfortable sending their children back to school. These are the same communities that have been hardest hitby Covid-19.

The mayor also says her rush to reopen is in response to the demands of parents, who have struggled to find childcare options during remote learning. Yet out of 191,000 K?8 students at CPS, the parents of only 71,000 plan to send their kids back to school next week.

Meanwhile, optional in-person learning already resumed for pre?K and special education students on January 11, but less than 19% of those students have returned, with the rest choosing to continue online instruction. 

“It’s obvious to everyone but CPS and the mayor that parents aren’t sending their children back because they do not believe schools are safe or that Covid is under control,” Davis Gates explained. ?“This is especially true for Black and Brown families.”

Pre?K and special education teachers and staff were ordered to reenter school buildings on January 4, but 40% refused to do so. Instead, many protested by setting up tables and laptops right outside their schools and holding remote learning sessions in frigid temperatures. CPS has moved to discipline over 100 of these teachers and staff, locking them out of their digital classrooms and docking their pay. 

“I have been ripped away from my students for practicing my right to work in a safe working environment,” said Perales, who is among those locked out. ?“My students have not had me there in front of them to teach them. That is infuriating and that is not equity.”

Safety

The controversy in Chicago was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when President Joe Biden?—?who wants to reopen most of the nation’s schools within his first 100 days in office?—?was asked his opinion about it.

“We should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers and for the help that’s in those schools maintaining the facilities,” Biden said. ?“The teachers, I know they want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment.”

The mayor argues her reopening plan meets suitable health and safety criteria, but the CTU notes that in the three weeks since some teachers and staff were ordered back into buildings, new Covid cases have already been reported at 64 CPS schools. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study on Tuesday reporting that the risk of Covid transmission in schools appears to be low, but the study only looked at schools in rural areas, not in a major city like Chicago. 

Three CDC researchers also published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday with similar conclusions, but they warned that the reopening of schools must be paired with restrictions on indoor dining at restaurants and bars to prevent wider community spread. Lightfoot lifted a suspension on indoor dining in Chicago earlier this week.

Over 160 CPS nurses have signed a letter saying Lightfoot’s plan is unsafe. ?“Nurses who work in schools have not been asked to formulate CPS’s plan,” the letter states, ?“but we are expected to carry it out?—?despite our objections.” Although the union won a contract guarantee of eventually putting a nurse in every school following its strike in October 2019, the letter acknowledges that ?“CPS is still far away from having a nurse in every building every day.”

Meanwhile, 36 out of 50 elected alderpeople on the Chicago City Council have signed a letter of their own expressing concerns about the school reopening plan. Similarly, multiple local school councils?—?elected bodies of parents, students and teachers?—?have issued resolutions objecting to the plan.

“We want to return to safe, welcoming and thriving schools,” Davis Gates said. ?“That can’t happen until we put the health and safety precautions of our educators, our students and the larger community ahead of the unreasonable demand to return to school buildings that lack the necessary protocols to keep us safe.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 27, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. 


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Chicago Teachers Are Voting on Whether to Defy Monday’s Reopening Order

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Delegates of the Chicago Teachers Union have just sent a referendum to members: shall we all work remotely starting Monday, January 25?

That’s the date when many were assigned to return to schools. If the district retaliates, delegates will reconvene to take a strike vote.

The plan was voted up by a large majority in an emergency meeting. It’s CTU’s boldest official move yet against reopening; the union has had to walk a difficult legal line.

But militancy has bubbled up from the rank and file. The members who were assigned to return in earlier waves of the mayor’s divisive reopening plan have been organizing their own resistance actions, school by school.

With the pandemic death toll in the U.S. now more than 400,000, Covid positivity rates in Chicago have climbed above 10 percent—double the target rate the city has set for itself—and in some neighborhoods, 15 percent. Yet the city is trying to force its educators back into classrooms.

RESISTING DIVISION

Clerks were ordered back into the school buildings last fall, followed January 4 by pre-K and special needs educators, followed January 11 by their students, to be followed by an ongoing rollout of returns by grade level.

Educators applying for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act due to their own vulnerabilities or those of household members have been rejected at alarming rates.

The entire system is designed to push individuals to make choices for themselves—do I try to get an ADA exemption, or brave the reopening, or quit?—rather than as a collective. But educators are working through these challenges.

Ana Bolotin, a special education teacher, said she was one of many teachers “who felt alone and did not know how to proceed as we were facing bullying from CPS.” She connected via Facebook with others from across the district who were ready to refuse to go into buildings. “Because of the pandemic, we didn’t know each other in real life. All of the relationships were forged virtually,” said Bolotin.

The group called a Zoom meeting, attended by 30 people, and talked about how they could organize to refuse to enter. Their next meeting had 100. These meetings were designed to support people to go back out and organize actions at their own schools.

LOCKED OUT

Staff members at Brentano Math and Science Academy decided that, beginning on January 4—the date they were ordered back—they would bring their laptops and teach from outside the school building.

And that’s what they did, despite below-freezing temperatures. “We are all scared,” said Pre-K teacher Kirsten Roberts. “All of our families have been directly impacted by Covid—by loss and illness.”

So far only pre-K and special needs educators had been called back, but other Brentano teachers turned up throughout the day to support them.

The next day when Roberts attempted to log on to Google Classroom, she was denied access—to her students, her email, and her pay. Management had blocked her.

At Suder Montessori, educators bought their own protective gear and used a CTU-provided checklist to do safety inspections. Educators at other schools donned masks during remote learning so that parents would have a better idea of what students would be experiencing in the classroom.

Some planned to get appointments to test before returning to school, which would require them to stay out of buildings until the results came back negative.

News reports suggest up to 60 percent of the educators who were told to return did not enter their buildings on the first day back.

That’s when Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it would be cutting off access to remote teaching for any educators like Roberts who were, by district rules, supposed to be inside. As of this writing, some are still locked out; an end to the lockout has been added to the union’s demands.

Still the organizing continued. The key, said Bolotin, “was brainstorming ways to increase solidarity and help people see that individual educators needed to support each other.”

STILL NOT SAFE

Mayors, governors, and other policymakers across the country continue to insist that schools are not sites of Covid infection, even as growing evidence suggests they are wrong. A study in the medical journal The Lancet noted that previous studies showing low or no school transmission had missed asymptomatic students and included schools with low attendance.

Recent reports from around the world suggest that open schools strongly correlate with hospitalizations and community spread. England, Germany, and South Korea initially reopened schools, but have since closed them again in the face of rising positivity rates.

But here in the U.S., where the government has been slow to provide relief for workers, policymakers continue to beat the school-reopening drum. That means educators’ lives are being put at risk—along with the lives of students and their families.

Many of the arguments made for reopening school buildings speak only to the health of students. And some of the most-cited reports of successful reopenings in the U.S. ignore the measures taken—smaller class sizes, robust testing and contact tracing—that are absent in most U.S. schools.

NO GOOD OPTIONS

Organizing against the reopenings has been tough for unions. Educators want to do what’s best for students, and everyone can see how inadequate remote teaching is—especially when many families have limited WiFi access and parents are juggling work and childcare. The stream of mixed messages about school transmission hasn’t helped.

CTU has been demanding testing, contact tracing, vaccinations for educators and other school staff, and the enforcement of safety protocols such as adequate protective gear, air-quality systems, and cleaning schedules before educators go back into the buildings.

The union has been holding virtual town halls with educators and providing checklists for building safety. It has garnered the support of 33 aldermen to say it’s not safe to reopen the buildings. Meanwhile, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has refused to negotiate with CTU about the reopening plan.

The Illinois legislature recently passed a law which would make many of the issues involved in reopening mandatory subjects of bargaining. The measure would repeal a section of the Illinois Educational Relations Act passed in 1995 that has allowed the district to refuse to bargain with the union over issues including class sizes, layoffs, subcontracting, and charter schools. That law is now sitting on the governor’s desk, waiting to be signed.

COMPETING FEARS

For Dennis Kosuth, a school nurse and Roberts’ partner, solidarity has meant working with members who were both afraid of getting sick and afraid of the district, in varying degrees. “We don’t trust CPS,” he said. So organizing required “finding the place where the person’s fear about the virus and readiness to risk their job met.”

To start, Kosuth struck out alone. He started doing his work outside the school building—checking on students, completing paperwork—and livestreamed it. Over the course of a week, more and more educators stopped by to show support. For him, the present challenge for organizers is, “How do we lead without getting out ahead?” 

Kosuth was one of 150 Chicago school nurses who signed a letter to the district saying that schools are unsafe. National Nurses United and the Illinois Nurses Association have backed up their concerns.

While the district is trying to pit parents and teachers against each other, Roberts said the message from the union to students’ families is: “We are exactly like you as workers. We want for you what we want for ourselves.”

‘OUR ONLY POWER’

At the end of the second week of forced return, some CTU members took personal days off and led a car caravan though the streets of Chicago to City Hall and the homes of members of the Board of Education while a board meeting was in session.

“Lori Lightfoot and the Board of Education seem to want there to be a corrosive atmosphere,” said Roberts. “In any rational world we would have collaboration. But they are creating a situation where our only power is to show them they cannot run the schools without us.”

Now the proposed January 25 stay-at-home is up to a member vote. A strike threat forced the city’s handback in August and kept schools remote.

Under Illinois law, public sector unions are banned from striking while under a collective bargaining agreement. CTU’s contract expires in 2024. The law also bans the city from locking workers out.

If CTU were to strike, it would be a safety strike. That, notes Roberts, would be uncharted territory.

But so are 4,000 deaths a day.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on January 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Barbara Madeloni is Education Coordinator at Labor Notes and a former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.


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How Chicago Teachers Are Resisting the City’s Dangerous School Reopenings

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This week, the first wave of children, teachers and clinicians in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system were required to appear at their schools for the first time in nearly a year. While Covid-19 cases and deaths have only increased (and increased dramatically) across the country since last spring, CPS officials and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot insist on reopening schools. What’s worse, teachers who fear for their safety and the safety of their students and coworkers are being locked out of their employee accounts and having their pay docked if they refuse to return from teaching remotely. In this urgent mini-cast, we talk to Paula Ladin and Mariana Ruiz, two CPS special-ed educators, about the city’s dangerous, reckless and unnecessary reopening plan and the impact it is already having on students, teachers, their families and their communities.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 15, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, ?“a podcast by, for, and about the working class today.” His work has been featured in venues like In These Times, The Nation, The Baffler, Current Affairs, and The New Republic.


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Chicago Teachers Are Considering a Strike Amid Pandemic Surge

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As the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic enters its dead­liest phase yet, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and its allies are resist­ing May­or Lori Lightfoot’s plan to reopen school build­ings and resume in-per­son learn­ing this month.

Over 10,000 CTU mem­bers have pledged their oppo­si­tion to the reopen­ing plan put for­ward by the may­or and Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS), cit­ing seri­ous con­cerns over safe­ty and transparency. 

In-per­son learn­ing is set to resume for pre?K stu­dents on Jan­u­ary 11, and for ele­men­tary school stu­dents on Feb­ru­ary 1. May­or Light­foot and CPS have not yet indi­cat­ed when they plan to reopen high schools.

“Many of our mem­bers are not feel­ing safe at all, they’re feel­ing more anx­ious and scared than ever,” said CTU Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey. He added that union mem­bers will hold meet­ings in the com­ing days and weeks and may con­sid­er hold­ing a strike autho­riza­tion vote.

Light­foot and CPS claim their deter­mi­na­tion to reopen schools at this time is a mat­ter of equi­ty for stu­dents of col­or who they say are falling behind under remote learn­ing. But only 31 per­cent of Lati­no fam­i­lies and 33.9 per­cent of Black fam­i­lies feel com­fort­able send­ing their kids back to in-per­son learn­ing. These are the same com­mu­ni­ties that have been hard­est hit by Covid-19. Across the coun­try, oth­er teach­ers’ unions are sim­i­lar­ly protest­ing school reopen­ing plans that they deem unsafe. 

“The biggest obsta­cle to reopen­ing schools is the man­age­ment of CPS, because they’ve failed to reach the stan­dards set by teach­ers and prin­ci­pals for our sup­port of a reopen­ing plan,” said Troy LaR­aviere, pres­i­dent of the Chica­go Prin­ci­pals & Admin­is­tra­tors Asso­ci­a­tion, which also oppos­es the rush to reopen. ?“Con­trary to the words of our may­or and CEO, this reopen­ing plan does not seek to address inequity, it is pro­mot­ing inequity.”

With its mem­bers hand­picked by the may­or, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is the only unelect­ed school board in Illi­nois. Mean­while, 36 out of 50 elect­ed alder­peo­ple on the City Coun­cil have signed onto a let­ter express­ing their con­cerns with the school reopen­ing plan. Sim­i­lar­ly, mul­ti­ple local school coun­cils?—?elect­ed bod­ies of par­ents, stu­dents and teach­ers?—?have issuedres­o­lu­tions object­ing to the plan.

“We believe the plan CPS has put for­ward is irre­spon­si­ble. We don’t think we are ready to send chil­dren back to the class­room, and nei­ther should we send teach­ers and staff,” said Alder­woman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez. ?“It seems like every fail­ure of this sys­tem ends up being the respon­si­bil­i­ty of teach­ers and staff to fix and we are always offer­ing them in sac­ri­fice when we can’t make the sys­tems work.”

CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Sta­cy Davis Gates con­curs. ?“You have a sit­u­a­tion right now where prin­ci­pals, para­pro­fes­sion­als, clin­i­cians, class­room teach­ers, elect­ed offi­cials, stu­dents and their fam­i­lies are beg­ging, demand­ing, ask­ing for safe­ty in the mid­dle of a pan­dem­ic,” she said. ?“And then the ques­tion comes to the Chica­go Teach­ers Union, ?‘Are you all going on strike?’ I actu­al­ly think that’s the wrong ques­tion. The right ques­tion has to be, ?‘Why aren’t they?—?the may­or and her team at CPS?—?lis­ten­ing to every­one else?’”

On Mon­day, about 7,000 pre?K and spe­cial edu­ca­tion teach­ers and staff were expect­ed to return to school build­ings, with their stu­dents set to return next week. Although CPS is threat­en­ing to dis­ci­pline edu­ca­tors who refuse to return in-per­son, about 40 per­cent did not reen­ter school build­ings on Monday. 

At Brentano Math and Sci­ence Acad­e­my in Logan Square, teach­ers and staff who had been told to report inside the build­ing on Mon­day instead set up tables and lap­tops in the school’s out­door court­yard, where they held remote learn­ing ses­sions all day in below-freez­ing temperatures.

“One of our biggest respon­si­bil­i­ties is to pro­tect, to guide and to advo­cate for our stu­dents at all times. This means we need to work to ensure their safe­ty, the qual­i­ty of their edu­ca­tion and to set an exam­ple by stand­ing up for our own health and safe­ty too,” said Annie Kel­logg, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion preschool teacher at Brentano.

“We work hard to attain our stu­dents’ trust. This can take weeks and months,” Claire Colt, a social work­er at Brentano, explained. ?“Now because of the anx­i­ety and uncer­tain­ty caused by CPS reopen­ing schools to in-per­son instruc­tion at the height of the pan­dem­ic, there is a chance these rela­tion­ships may be disrupted…This means more loss­es for our stu­dents, pre­cise­ly at a time when they need as much sta­bil­i­ty as possible.”

Accord­ing to a CTU sur­vey, 69 per­cent of edu­ca­tors who chose to return to school build­ings on Mon­day report­ed poor con­di­tions, lack of PPE and inad­e­quate air fil­ters for class­rooms. Light­foot and CPS CEO Jan­ice K. Jack­son post­ed pho­tos on Twit­ter of their vis­it to two ele­men­tary schools?—?but reporters were not invit­ed to these events, nor were they on the mayor’s pub­lic schedule. 

The CTU is demand­ing clear pub­lic health cri­te­ria for reopen­ing schools, specif­i­cal­ly that in-per­son learn­ing only resume when Chicago’s test pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is below 3 per­cent. The city’s cur­rent pos­i­tiv­i­ty rate is over 10per­cent and rising. 

“They didn’t go by any met­rics or any data, they went by a date,” Alder­man Car­los Ramirez-Rosa said of CPS’s reopen­ing plan. ?“And they picked a date that comes right after a peri­od of time when peo­ple were gath­er­ing indoors and spread­ing coro­n­avirus to each oth­er dur­ing Christ­mas and New Year’s.”

A major point of con­tention between the union and CPS has been the school district’s insis­tence that it can uni­lat­er­al­ly impose a reopen­ing plan with­out first reach­ing a nego­ti­at­ed agree­ment with the CTU. Last month, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion­al Labor Rela­tions Board denied the union’s motion for an injunc­tion on the cur­rent reopen­ing plan, but an admin­is­tra­tive judge will hear the case at the end of this month.

“It’s not going to work if the dis­trict sim­ply con­tin­ues dic­tat­ing to us and doesn’t sit at the table and lis­ten to the peo­ple who are most on the ground, who know most about what the spe­cif­ic con­di­tions are like in build­ings,” Sharkey explained.

“We need more than what we are receiv­ing in this moment,” Davis Gates said. ?“And it should not take a fight that shuts every­thing down to get those things.”

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on January 5, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst.


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Cleveland Heights Teachers Strike in the Snow, Beating Austerity with Solidarity

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Teachers in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, walked out on strike December 2 for the first time since 1983.

Why now? The state was trying to privatize public education. The local school board was trying to balance the budget on our backs. Add to that a once-in-a-century pandemic.

A well-organized membership was determined not to bend to the pressure from all of the above.

PUSH TO PRIVATIZE

Ohio’s legislature, like others, enacted its own version of privatization with a piece of legislation passed in 2013 called Ed Choice.

This law uses a test-and-punish report card to label a school district as failing. Families living in that district can then take public money as a tuition voucher for a private or religious school of their choice.

The Cleveland Heights-University Heights district already had a high concentration of families sending their kids to private and religious schools. Now these families are draining the district of much-needed state funding—creating a budget crisis.

It’s all straight from the playbook of the privatization purveyors. First, starve public schools of funds. This erodes the quality of education, prompting an exodus of students out of the district. This brings pressure to lay off union teaching staff and demand pay cuts. The cycle repeats. 

LOCAL AGENTS OF AUSTERITY

Our union was well aware of the descending storm. That’s why, with the help of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, we led the efforts to change the Ed Choice law. We got no help from our elected school board, and so far our lobbying has yielded no results.

Then in the spring, the Board of Education dropped a hammer, demanding contract concessions unlike any our negotiators had ever seen.

Claiming poverty and citing an impending budget crisis, the board proposed to eliminate experience step increases, something we’ve always had. It demanded a 250 percent increase in what we pay for health insurance and a 1 percent reduction in the board’s share of our state pension. These concessions added up to a $3,000 to $5,000 annual cut in pay.

The board claimed the cuts would bring our health insurance “in line” with surrounding districts. But over the past decade, our union had made concession after concession on wages to keep our health care costs from spiraling. It was a point of pride that we had maintained a decent health care package over the years—even at the expense of a wage rate that fell behind the cost of living.

OUT FOR BLOOD

The extreme demands hit members like a bombshell. But most people thought the district would bargain down. Our negotiators got the district to back off the experience steps.

On our health care, though, it seemed to be out for blood. Apparently the board was listening to a small, vocal minority of anti-tax activists who were misleading the public into believing that our health plans were the reason the district was heading into fiscal crisis.

In June our union formed a strike committee and began organizing for a strike, though the possibility still seemed remote.

Throughout the summer we were also distracted by the global pandemic. The district was planning to start the new school year in person, even though the pandemic showed no signs of diminishing. Teachers lobbied, with community support, and convinced the district to go fully online. But still the impasse in bargaining was causing great consternation.

AT AN IMPASSE

In September the district announced its last, best contract offer. Our strike committee organized an in-person contract rejection vote. Members drove through in their cars; union volunteers handed them ballots. It was a way to bring people together while we couldn’t meet in large groups.

The final tally was 97.5 percent to reject the contract—more than enough to authorize the union to call a strike. We hoped this overwhelming rejection would bring the board to its senses. But instead it decided to impose its offer, an unprecedented step in our local’s history.

This blatant show of disrespect incensed our members, especially after the board told the press that the union was the one refusing to bargain in good faith. Soon after, the board agreed to another round of negotiations—but these were postponed when both sides agreed to wait until after the November 3 election, when a new local tax levy would be on the ballot.

In the meantime, the union strike committee continued to organize in earnest, meeting weekly via Zoom.

PREPARING TO STRIKE

The election came and went; the tax levy passed narrowly. Negotiations reopened—and still the board refused to budge from its final offer.

After a series of vociferous Zoom meetings with the membership, our union president filed a 10-day strike notice. A couple days later the school board president, with crocodile tears in her eyes, made the shocking announcement that the district would be suspending our health insurance on day one of the strike.

This move, though we discovered it was not unprecedented, was highly unusual for a public sector strike. Advisors from the Teachers (AFT) told us they had never seen this happen to one of their locals before. As it turned out, it was a terrible public relations move for the board. We got an outpouring of support from community members outraged at the cruelty of eliminating health insurance during a pandemic.

Meanwhile our organizing efforts had become urgent. Each school building had formed its own strike committee, taking direction from the union-wide committee.

The building where I work, the high school, has a relatively large membership of 140. We decided to divide into strike teams by department, each with a captain. Since we were doing distance learning, we couldn’t see members in person daily, so the strike captains set up text and email chains and made phone calls to keep members informed, organize picket-line shift schedules, cement members’ commitment to the strike, and identify possible scabs.

Well before the 10-day notice, the union-wide committee had strike captains distribute electronic pledge cards asking members where they stood on the impending strike—were they supportive, would they picket, and would they promise not to cross the picket line? We also sent out forms to select your preferred picketing shift.

STRIKING IN THE SNOW

Then complications arose. First, COVID-19 cases surged in Ohio, and the governor handed down new mandates closing public facilities and limiting assemblies to 10 people. We lost access to the library branches we had planned to use for restrooms and as warming stations. In the last week before the strike, our committees had to find new restrooms and revamp the picket schedules to shorten shifts.

The day before the strike, Northeast Ohio was blasted by a massive snowstorm. With some schools now off limits due to the snow and loss of parking spaces, we had to change plans again. We called for members to picket at two locations: the high school and the Board of Education. We also had to postpone a planned in-car rally, because the location was still buried in snow.

Nonetheless, as the sun rose on “D-Day,” our members came out in massive numbers in the bitter cold and snow. Teachers started the first day of picketing with snow shovels and blowers to clear the sidewalks.

After three and a half hours, word reached the lines that that a settlement had been reached, one that our executive board could recommend. We went home for Zoom meetings to debate the merits of the offer. Two days later, members voted it up by more than 90 percent.

THEY FOUND THE MONEY

The contract is decent. Although it has us paying more for our premiums and opens the door to co-pays, these concessions are much less than the ones in the board’s egregious “final” offer. They are concessions we can live with, and they are partly offset by a modest raise and additional days off. 

We got a two-year contract instead of one year, so we don’t have to fight this battle again in a few months. And in a huge win, we safeguarded tenure for five more years—staving off the arbitrary and punitive evaluation system the district was pushing.

Somehow, at the end, the school board had found the money to offer a dignified contract.

It showed that a well-organized group of workers can reject austerity. One member put it well when she said the so-called final offer was nothing less than a “race to the bottom and we weren’t having it.” Our unity proved unshakeable—even when we were confronted with having our health care cut off, a move designed to scare members into crossing the picket lines.

Walking off the picket lines one fellow strike captain, a music teacher, told me that we need to maintain what we built. We need to develop a union culture where we have one another’s backs and band together to protect ourselves in the workplace—even in between contract negotiations.

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Tony Bifulco is a history teacher and was the lead strike captain for Cleveland Heights High School.


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Democrats’ lackluster performance in Senate spells trouble for labor

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With the Democrats’ failure to win an outright majority in the Senate and Republicans making surprising gains in the House, Joe Biden’s sweeping promises to expand American labor rights just got a lot harder to fulfill.

Proposals pushed by Democratic lawmakers to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, expand workers’ ability to form unions and rewrite years of U.S. law form the cornerstone of Biden’s labor agenda. But if Republican Mitch McConnell stays in charge of the Senate, it’s unlikely that any push for collective bargaining rights or wage hikes would advance even if Biden wins the presidency.

“I am concerned about it,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview.

Unions had high hopes for the election, spending $188 million backing Democratic candidates and voting for Biden in larger numbers than the general electorate did. They were also a major source of grassroots organizing power for the party.

Yet Democrats failed to win in many Senate battlegrounds this week, and both parties are still short of a majority in the chamber. Georgia is now the key to control of the Senate, with both of the state’s races appearing likely to head to runoffs in early January.

Despite the disappointing results, Weingarten and other union leaders say they’re not giving up. She says there will be “a real fight” to enact Democrats’ PRO Act in a GOP-controlled Senate, a bill that Biden has backed as a major priority of his administration that would vastly expand workers’ ability to form unions.

But passing that legislation and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 may be unachievable with GOP control of the Senate. House Democrats’ faced major headwinds from red-state members of their own caucus when pushing for the Raise the Wage Act, which the chamber passed July 18.

Enacting the most progressive reforms largely hinged “on taking over the Senate and either winning enough votes to make the filibuster unimportant or dealing with the filibuster,” Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), who serves on the Health Education and Labor Committee, said.

A Biden administration could still get a lot done if it “puts the right people” in the Labor Department, Levin said, “but there’s no fundamental reform.”

Biden will also have to weigh how much political capital he wants to risk with the powerful business lobby — which has billed the Democrats’ proposals as potential job killers and warned that putting any more liability on businesses could stymie the economic recovery from the coronavirus.

Some in the business community pointed to 2009, when newly elected President Barack Obama fell silent on a key labor-backed bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, despite endorsing it in the 2008 campaign and calling it a top priority.

Even with a 60-vote Democratic Senate supermajority, the party couldn’t pass the bill, which would have allowed unions to represent workers based on the informal collection of signed authorization forms, known as card check, instead of an NLRB-supervised secret ballot election.

The labor movement will keep pushing for its agenda, despite the shaky odds of full Democratic control of Congress, said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

“We’ll figure out a way to get it done eventually,” Trumka said on a press call Thursday. “And we’ll have popular support. There are a number of legislative vehicles that we use; we will try everything we can.”

Weingarten said she is optimistic about Biden’s chances to find some bipartisanship in a divided Washington. “Given who Joe Biden is,” she said, “he uniquely will help demonstrate to these hard-core Republican senators and to the business community that long-term it’s in everyone’s interest to rebuild the middle class.“

Other labor leaders agreed that they don’t plan to tamp down their expectations of Biden’s labor agenda even if Republicans win control of the Senate, a result that won’t be known until January with the likely Georgia runoff elections.

“We are going to stay fiercely committed to demanding that the House, Senate and president take dramatic, bold action on curbing the pandemic and creating good jobs that people can feed their families on, and by tackling racial and inequality and the climate crisis,” Mary Kay Henry, international president of the 2 million-member Service Employees International Union, told POLITICO.

Major unions like SEIU organized canvassing drives and texting campaigns in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Nevada. Union members overall were more likely to support Biden than voters generally, with 57 percent of union households backing him compared to 51 percent of non-union households, according to The New York Times’ exit polling.

But labor leaders say President Donald Trump aided the GOP’s performance by giving working people a message — albeit a false one — that they wanted to hear: Covid-19 will end after Election Day.

“If you’re tired of COVID, and you’re fatigued by COVID, and you’re anxious to get back to your job and your work or your small business is teetering, you want to believe that,” Weingarten said.

“You can’t underestimate the social isolation that has happened in America, since the start of this terrible pandemic,” she said.

Other leaders blamed Democrats’ performance in congressional races on freshman lawmakers, who are usually the most vulnerable in their efforts to get reelected.

“Democrats can also always do a better job of talking about kitchen table economics,” said Trumka. “I tell them that every single time that I meet with them, but many of the losses that we saw on the House side, were in districts with first-time Democratic seats.”

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said a Biden presidency could be the last chance for unions to secure an expansion of labor rights before restrictions on collective bargaining drown out their influence.

“As organized labor declines in numbers and percentage of the workforce, it has less political clout,” said Reich, who served under President Bill Clinton. “So it’s a death spiral.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on November 6, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Eleanor Mueller is a legislative reporter for POLITICO Pro, covering policy passing through Congress. She also authors Day Ahead, POLITICO Pro’s daily newsletter rounding up Capitol Hill goings-on.


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What Does a “Safe Return” to School Look Like? Ask Teacher Unions.

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Powerful elites are willing to sacrifice the lives and futures of millions to feed their own profits. Teachers are fighting back.

Demands for stu­dents and edu­ca­tors to return to in-per­son school­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic are com­ing from Democ­rats and Repub­li­cans, both claim­ing the return is nec­es­sary not just to pro­vide high-qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion, but to save the econ­o­my and get par­ents back to work. The nar­ra­tive con­scious­ly exploits the needs of par­ents who may not have health­care and who rely on pub­lic schools to care for and edu­cate their chil­dren while they work. It pits par­ents, stu­dents, teach­ers and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers against one anoth­er, using (or ignor­ing) sci­en­tif­ic data to suit the polit­i­cal pur­pose of mon­eyed inter­ests?—?the bipar­ti­san project of destroy­ing pub­lic schools. 

When Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Bet­sy DeVos tweets that par­ents ?“need real options for edu­ca­tion this fall” and #School­ChoiceNow?—?with­out pro­vid­ing the equip­ment, con­di­tions or funds need­ed to make schools safe?—?the real mes­sage is clear. The Right is using the push to reopen as a way to inten­si­fy the pri­va­ti­za­tion and mar­ke­ti­za­tion of edu­ca­tion, boost prof­its in the edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy sec­tor and erode trust in pub­lic schools. 

In response, teach­ers’ labor activism?—?wide­spread and robust in recent years?—?con­tin­ues to emerge. Teach­ers orga­niz­ing on social media have cam­paigned for var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic stan­dards to trig­ger reopen­ing; #14DaysNoNewCases, for exam­ple, demands that cam­pus­es only reopen after going two weeks with­out Covid-19 infec­tions. The Demand Safe Schools Coali­tion wants class sizes lim­it­ed to 10 to 15 stu­dents, ven­ti­la­tion that meets guide­lines from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, clean and social­ly dis­tant school trans­porta­tion, sup­plies of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment and ample Covid-19 test­ing. Activists in dozens of cities ral­lied August 3 for these and oth­er demands, resist­ing hasty, under­fund­ed and unsafe reopen­ings that impose harm, espe­cial­ly on low-income stu­dents of col­or. The cam­paign #Only­When­ItsSafe advo­cates reopen­ing only if it is ?“equi­table and healthy for every­one,” in the words of Boston Teach­ers Union Pres­i­dent Jes­si­ca Tang. 

For many teach­ers union activists advo­cat­ing for social jus­tice, an ?“equi­table” school is one that can address the full range of human needs required to edu­cate all chil­dren well. Chil­dren who are hun­gry and on the verge of evic­tion?—?or liv­ing in tem­po­rary shel­ters?—?can­not be expect­ed to suc­ceed aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, whether remote­ly or in per­son. An equi­table school, for exam­ple, would sup­port the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment in its call to replace police with coun­selors, nurs­es, social work­ers and restora­tive jus­tice per­son­nel. It would also sup­port the can­cel­la­tion of rents and mort­gages, a mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions and fore­clo­sures, and direct cash assis­tance for the unem­ployed and those unable to work. The nation’s sec­ond and third largest teach­ers unions, in Chica­go and Los Ange­les, helped orga­nize protests against finan­cial tar­gets like the Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Fed­er­al Reserve, the Board of Trade and big banks, call­ing for inter­est-free loans and high­er tax­es on the rich to fund safe school reopenings. 

The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA) have ver­bal­ly sup­port­ed some of the movement’s demands. For exam­ple, AFT has endorsed a union local’s right to strike when nec­es­sary to pre­vent reopen­ings that endan­ger lives. But both unions have also embraced the push from Wall Street and Sil­i­con Val­ley for edu­ca­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy to con­trol learn­ing and prof­it from stu­dent data. The pan­dem­ic CARES Act, endorsed by both unions, encour­ages fun­nel­ing lim­it­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion fund­ing into soft­ware for dis­tance learn­ing, con­trolled by cor­po­ra­tions. Ed tech cor­po­ra­tions and lib­er­al think tanks are now push­ing soft­ware for ?“per­son­al­ized learn­ing” and ?“social and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment” that col­lects data that can be used for prof­it and sur­veil­lance— while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly dis­tort­ing and appro­pri­at­ing ideals about mak­ing learn­ing indi­vid­ual and car­ing for children’s needs. Though some teach­ers are start­ing to use their local and state unions, like the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, to push back against the NEA and AFT posi­tions, the dan­gers of ed tech in reopen­ing plans and edu­ca­tion remain most­ly unrecognized. 

Pow­er­ful elites are will­ing to sac­ri­fice the lives and futures of mil­lions of peo­ple to feed their own prof­its. Even beyond the life-and-death risk to their per­son­al health, teach­ers’ strug­gles mark resis­tance to the per­pet­u­a­tion of this unequal, unjust society.

For a response to this piece, see ?“All the Options for School­ing Are Bad?—?But We Have to Choose Safe­ty” by Chan­dra Thomas Whitfield.

This blog was originally published at In These Times on September 17, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University who is on the editorial board of New Politics. Her newest book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice.

About the Author: Jackson Potter is a Chica­go Teach­ers Union trustee, mem­ber of the Big Bar­gain­ing Team and a teacher at Back of The Yards Col­lege Prep.


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Teachers have public support for COVID-19 safety strikes, this week in the war on workers

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Teachers in some areas have said they might go on strike rather than going back to in-person teaching if they felt it would be unsafe—and a majority of Americans would support them, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll found. A third of people said they would strongly support teachers, and another 22% said they would somewhat support teachers.

Just 21% of people said schools should completely reopen in person, with another 26% saying schools should partially reopen in person, and 38% saying schools should be closed or online-only. A 47% plurality said that the risks of reopening schools are greater than the consequences of keeping them closed, and 45% said teachers should not be required to teach in person. Regardless of what teachers or the public think, schools have already reopened in many places and teachers are dying.

This blog was originally published at DailyKos on September 12, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.


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Teachers unions test goodwill with strike threats, hardball negotiations

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In addition to safety measures, some unions are pressing for police-free schools, canceling rents and mortgages, and bans on new charter programs and standardized testing.

Teachers won newfound respect at the start of the pandemic as parents learned just how difficult it was to teach their kids at home.

But teachers unions now risk squandering the outpouring of goodwill by threatening strikes, suing state officials and playing hardball during negotiations with districts.

In California, unions fought Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom hard for teacher protections and job security as campuses were shuttered, and are demanding high-income tax hikes to fill education budget shortfalls. In New York City, a social justice caucus within the United Federation of Teachers called on the union to threaten “severe disruption” if the governor and the mayor implement what they describe as “reckless reopening plans.” The Florida Education Association is in a legal battle with state officials to try to overturn an order requiring schools to physically open five days a week or risk losing state funding.

“Let’s be honest: Teachers went from heroes in March when parents saw what we do everyday, and now we’ve become, in some people’s eyes, the villains because we are speaking up about the safety concerns we see,” said Lisa Morgan, president of the Georgia Association of Educators.

Safety concerns have been at the heart of union objections to reopening as they confront teachers getting sick or even dying from Covid-19. Many union leaders have worked collaboratively with management on contracts and reopening plans, and they have spent months calling for additional federal money to secure personal protective equipment and allow for socially distanced instruction. But more recently, a coalition including some local unions has pushed further, laying out demands such as police-free schools, a cancellation of rents and mortgages, and moratoriums on both new charter programs and standardized testing.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has 1.7 million members, has called for “safety strikes” as a last resort if school reopening plans don’t protect the health of educators and the larger 3-million member National Education Association says nothing is off the table.

Those threats and demands have raised the ire of some lawmakers, school districts, parents and conservative groups who argue that teachers are taking advantage of the chaos the pandemic has caused to push policy changes the unions have wanted for years.

“No question, there’s a risk that some will use this moment to politicize these challenges in a way that simply is counterproductive,” said Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, a progressive political organization that advocates for students and families. “I don’t think anything that’s not related to either the health or educational implications of Covid makes sense.”

Members of a coalition of activist parents called the National Parents Union largely agree with teachers unions over what reopening should look like, and their “Family Bill of Rights” emphasizes a need to implement safety measures like masks, temperature checks and updated ventilation systems, said Keri Rodrigues, the group’s president.

But Rodrigues, whose organization represents primarily minority and low-income parents, also criticized the unions for trying to “dominate the conversation” and promote a “long-standing political agenda,” which she called an “overreach.”

“I think that parents were willing to extend a lot of grace in March, in April, even into May,” she said, adding that feeling began to erode after a long summer with little guidance and few decisions made about how to move forward. “At this point, parents are very frustrated.”

Many union officials said they are aware of the need to balance their own demands with parents’ anxiety over their children falling behind — and they know the support they have so far enjoyed could slip.

In Ohio, local unions are focused on the “balancing act” of advocating for both quality learning and teacher and student safety, said Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association. The state union has called on Republican Gov. Mike DeWine to restrict any schools in counties with the highest levels of coronavirus cases to remote learning only, while requiring all others to follow the CDC’s safety guidelines for reopening.

“We’re very conscious of the need to be partners with parents, not to end up being in adversarial relationships,” DiMauro said. “But the longer this goes on, it’s just like everything about coronavirus — there are vulnerabilities in the system, and we can’t go on like this forever.”

Others have been more defiant. Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, defended the demands that critics have slammed as going too far, including a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures.

“How can you do remote learning from home if you don’t have a home?” she said. “This is fundamentally about a city, about a mayor who has failed to repair a safety net.”

In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot initially announced a hybrid reopening model before reversing course earlier this month and announcing that schools would open online-only. The decision came just days after news broke that the union, which has more than 25,000 members, was considering a potential strike vote if the district did not change its plans.

“A win for teachers, students and parents,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey posted on Twitter at the time. “It’s sad that we have to strike or threaten to strike to be heard, but when we fight we win!”

The pandemic has made some union leaders hopeful that it will strengthen their cause and influence for the foreseeable future, as teachers who feel forced into unsafe working conditions look for support and want to get involved.

“More of our members, and more educators in general, are questioning their beliefs on things like strikes. For the first time, they’re really seeing the depths and magnitude of what it actually takes to force change and are rethinking their beliefs on work stoppages,” said Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which represents more than 65,000 of the nearly 365,000 teachers in the state. “I’ve never received as many unsolicited new memberships.”

Union strikes won’t “sit well” with those working parents who want their kids to return to the classroom, said Dan Domenech, who runs AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “That emerges as a major bone of contention, for example, with a lot of the red states that have been pushing for the kids being in the building physically,” he said.

But he said superintendents, generally, have described their negotiations with unions as a “fairly agreeable process,” and some superintendents see union pushback at the state level as an effort to prevent an “open-schools-at-all-costs attitude.”

“The unions, in a situation like this, where they have the support of the parents and the community because what they’re advocating for is the safety of the students and the staff — that’s a very powerful position,” Domenech said.

The debate over whether and how to reopen schools safely is about more than getting children back in classrooms. Proponents of fully reopening schools, including President Donald Trump, say doing so would help reopen the U.S. economy, allowing parents to get back to work, while helping more students access mental health services and meals from their schools. It would also represent a step toward normalcy, which Trump badly wants before voters head to the polls in November.

Asked about the threat of teacher strikes, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told Fox News recently that “parents and children can’t be held captive to others’ fears or agendas.”

In a June poll, 76 percent of AFT members surveyed indicated they were comfortable returning to school buildings with “proper safeguards,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said last month. That was before the virus started to spread more rapidly in the U.S. and Trump, as well as DeVos, began what Weingarten called “reckless ‘open or else’ threats.”

“Now they’re angry and afraid,” Weingarten said of her members. “Many are quitting, retiring or writing their wills. Parents are afraid and angry too.”

Cecily Myart-Cruz, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, which represents the country’s second-largest school district, urged union members to ramp up their demands in her inaugural speech. “We can’t count on the politicians, whether it’s the White House, Congress or the governor to open up the economy in a safe and equitable manner. We can’t count on them to fully fund public education,” she said.

Both NEA and AFT have issued their own guidance for reopening schools. And AFT recently adopted a resolution setting some specific parameters for reopening, including a daily community infection rate below 5 percent and a transmission rate below 1 percent.

But local unions’ work on reopening plans have been used against them, with critics alleging that teachers are putting themselves over the needs of students. Some parents who are essential workers argue that if they are reporting to their jobs, so should teachers.

The Center for Education Reform, an organization that advocates for school choice and charter schools, slammed unions in a policy brief this month, saying that union leaders are “only interested in strikes not solutions.”

“Unions are attacking states and locales that are trying to provide options for everyone, while demanding billions more,” CER said.

The open question is where parents themselves fall in this debate. National polls largely show a majority remain uneasy about reopening: Two-thirds of parents say they see sending their children to school as a large or moderate risk, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey released last week — and almost three in four of Americans surveyed said they are concerned about schools in their community reopening too soon.

Parents of color have also been more worried about reopening than white parents, surveys show. An earlier Axios-Ipsos poll from July found nearly 90 percent of Black parents and 80 percent of Hispanic parents viewed sending their children back to school as a large or moderate risk, compared to 64 percent of white parents.

Some outside groups and experts warn that those numbers could start to shift the longer the debate goes on and students remain out of the classroom.

“With the economy reopening, a lot of individuals are putting themselves in uncomfortable positions in terms of working in light of the pandemic, and might expect teachers to have some give there as well,” said Bradley Marianno, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who has been tracking negotiations between teachers’ unions and school districts since the spring.

Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, said “parents rightly have given teachers and unions a lot of grace,” especially during the “chaotic” roll out of remote learning in the spring. But there’s “potential for increasing tension” between parents and unions as leaders negotiate with districts on issues such as how much live virtual instruction they will provide.

“They’re issues that parents have a vested interest in, but they’re not at the table, right? So that’s that’s where the potential tension comes in,” she said.

Some parents, frustrated with their experience in the spring, are already banding together to create private tutoring pods for small groups of students during the pandemic.

If they have to choose between the teachers and their own student’s welfare, Lake said, “they’ll choose their student.”

This blog originally appeared at Politico on August 18, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Megan Cassella is a trade reporter for POLITICO Pro. Before joining the trade team in June 2016, Megan worked for Reuters based out of Washington, covering the economy, domestic politics and the 2016 presidential campaign. 

About the Author: Nicole Gaudiano is an education reporter for POLITICO Pro. In more than two decades of reporting, she has covered crime, the military, Congress, presidential campaigns and, now, education. She is a reporter who cares deeply about accuracy, asks tough questions and loves learning. Along with reporting, she enjoys shooting videos and photos.

About the Author: Mackenzie Mays covers education in California. Prior to joining POLITICO in 2019, she was the investigative reporter at the Fresno Bee, where her political watchdog reporting received a National Press Club press freedom award.


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