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Labor tension builds between Chicago, unions over staffing student-less school buildings

The lunchroom staff at Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary pose on the first week of food distribution in Chicago. The district had distributed 13 million meals as of June 1.

The lunchroom staff at Federico Garcia Lorca Elementary pose on the first week of food distribution in Chicago.

Courtesy of Lorca Elementary

With the first day of school one week away, two labor complaints filed by the Chicago Teachers Union are moving ahead that could have broader implications. 

An unfair labor practice lawsuit and grievance filed by the union last week —the first effort by the union to bring in outside rulings on members working in school buildings — are headed toward hearings this coming week, union legal representatives said. 

The dispute could be the first sign of what this school year’s labor landscape will look like as unions across the country grapple with a new set of risks and demands for educators. In Chicago, where teachers went on strike less than a year ago, the city’s teachers union is again at odds with school district leadership. 

At issue is the district’s request for over 700 school clerks to come into school buildings and assist with student registration. Union leaders say they weren’t given the opportunity to negotiate over clerks’ working conditions this fall, and they want to see a detailed safety plan. But the broader question is how negotiations about unprecedented learning conditions this fall will take place. 

Even though Chicago’s 355,000 students are starting the year remotely, the district has called upon some personnel to return to buildings, including principals and other support staff. That’s because some of the functions taken on by schools — registering students, handing out meals, and devices — still happen on campuses. 

Clerks answer the school’s phones to assist parents, help students enroll, distribute devices and more, the district says. “Their presence is essential to a successful start of the school year,” spokesperson Emily Bolton said. 

The unfair labor practice suit, filed last week with the State of Illinois Labor Relations Board, argues the union wasn’t given adequate warning that clerks were expected to work in schools this fall, making it difficult for union leaders to negotiate. The suit also said that there aren’t sufficient safety measures in place. 

Union officials said many clerks are older Black and Latino women, putting them at risk if they contract COVID-19; Black and Latino communities have been particularly hard hit by the virus. The union wants the district to create a virtual registration system. 

Clerks “are heads of households, they live in communities that are experiencing double digit positivity rates,” union vice president Stacy Davis Gates said. 

The district said that any employee could apply for an accommodation, including the option to work from home, or for a leave of absence. “Most importantly, school buildings are nearly empty and there is ample room for social distancing,” Bolton said. 

The teachers union wants more detailed safety precautions, including plexiglass barriers for in-person registration, a cleaning schedule, available protective equipment, and safety protocol from the district. They instructed clerks to appeal to their principals to be removed from in-person work. They warned the district’s labor counsel in a letter that employees have a right to decline assignments seen as dangerous; it’s illegal to discipline them for doing so

The district said it is including safety measures like temperature checks, an online daily symptom screening questionnaire, and sneeze guards that were installed last weekend. Schools will also require masks and have hand sanitizer available. 

But the conversation is part of a larger dispute. 

The union says it wants to be consulted more in decision making about reopening and remote learning. Chicago Public Schools has said it is “continuing to engage with CTU and all other unions” and meets with CTU leadership weekly.

Chicago announced earlier this month that it would start the year remotely, but much like when schools first closed in the spring, some staff will be expected to work in buildings. 

Last Monday, the district sent school staff an email saying school clerks, security officers, technology coordinators, and some transportation employees would be expected to work full time in schools this fall. Other staff, like physical and occupational therapists, social workers, and nurses would be asked to come to the building to deliver specific services. 

Some administrators, security guards, and kitchen workers have been working in buildings since March to staff the district’s meal program and distribute devices. 

At the same time, some workers voiced concerns about safety, including a lack of protective equipment. Since the spring, the district said it has purchased more than 1.2 million reusable cloth face coverings, installed 42,000 hand sanitizer dispensers, and purchased more than 40,000 containers of disinfectant wipes and 22,000 infrared thermometers.

A count in May showed 85 Chicago Public Schools staff members, service vendors, or charter school staff had tested positive for the coronavirus. Two had died. The district said at the time that about a third of the cases came from employees who were actively working in buildings. District officials have not provided an updated count. 

Now safety concerns linger, not only from the teachers union but also other groups representing both top-level administrators and custodial and security staff working in school buildings. 

Troy LaRaviere, the head of the Chicago Principal and Administrators Association, said at last week’s board meeting that some principals have expressed concerns about going into school buildings during remote learning. “If it’s not safe for central office staff or teachers to report to work, it’s not safe for anyone else,” LaRaviere said. “We’re not COVID immune just because we don’t have a union.” 

Service Employees International Union 73, which represents custodians and other school support staff, told Chalkbeat that the district, against the union’s wishes, has tried to expand the responsibilities of its employees during the pandemic. 

“For example, security officers [are] taking temperatures of anyone entering a school,” said Local 73 vice president Science Meles. “We do not want to see the substantive character of our jobs changed.” 

What labor actions could look like in the time of coronavirus remains unclear, but both principals and teachers across the country have turned to unions to channel concerns about school reopening. 

In New York City, unionized principals from more than 40 schools joined calls to delay the reopening of in-person learning. In Denver, school principals formed a union this week and are asking the school district for recognition. In Detroit, teachers are on the verge of a ‘safety strike’ over work conditions. 

In Chicago, the union, which represents 30,000 teacher and paraprofessional members, was sharply critical of the district’s initial hybrid reopening plan, and threatened a strike if buildings were opened without proper safety precautions.

The district said the first quarter will be all-remote and that the aim will be to move toward a hybrid model with some in-person learning by the start of the second quarter on Nov. 9. Until then, Chicago has promised students a year as close as possible to in-school instruction, including a six-hour virtual school day and a return to normal practices of grading and attendance, along with annual evaluations for teachers.  

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