CHICAGO, Oct. 23, 2020—The Chicago Teachers Union filed a new unfair labor practice (ULP) charge and request for injunctive relief late yesterday evening, charging that Chicago Public Schools has illegally refused to bargain over when and how to safely resume in-person learning. Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS have been refusing for months to bargain with the union on safety protocols in schools.
CPS’ refusal to work with the Union to agree to even the most basic of safety standards is a grave concern for rank-and-file educators — hundreds of whom were forced back into buildings by CPS beginning on August 26. There have been reported cases of COVID-19 in more than 80 schools since then, as one teacher has died, and hundreds more workers have been infected.
“Our youngest and most medically vulnerable students deserve safety, yet that is exactly what CPS refuses to take steps to document or guarantee,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said.
The district’s facilities records show that fewer than ten percent of schools’ ventilation systems are in good working order and able to meet safety standards that prevent the transmission of COVID-19. Those conditions provoked a binding ruling from an arbitrator early this month that Union clerks, clerk assistants and technology coordinators should be allowed to work remotely until CPS buildings were safe — a decision that the arbitrator reiterated yesterday.
CPS has ignored that binding ruling, and instead continued to force CTU members and other workers — some of whom are now sick with COVID-19 — to work in school buildings. The Union filed separate ULP charges over CPS illegally threatening those employees with loss of pay or discipline for exercising their rights under the arbitrator’s order to protect their health and their lives by working remotely.
Yesterday’s ULP also seeks injunctive relief against CPS for refusing to allow the Union’s certified industrial hygienists access to school buildings in advance of reopening to conduct inspections of air circulation systems. Those inspections are allowed under the CTU contract and the law. The charge requests that the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board seek an injunction against CPS’ intent to resume in-person instruction until the district has bargained in good faith with the Union over when and how to do so safely. Said VP Davis Gates:
“We all want to return to our students. We don’t want to die doing our jobs, and we don’t want to be vectors for spreading illness or death to our students and their families. Yet the mayor and CPS simply refuse to lay out and discuss their plan for returning to classrooms, when we know from their own facilities records that these buildings aren’t safe.
“That’s cruel, and reckless, at a time when what CPS parents and families truly need is transparency and truth.”
There is now scientific consensus that the spread of COVID-19 is predominantly airborne, and that poorly ventilated indoor spaces significantly increase the risk of infection. CPS claimed in August that all of its air circulation systems were fine and that school buildings were safe. But on Oct. 2, an independent labor arbitrator who CPS itself selected ruled that CPS school buildings are unsafe working environments during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that CPS had violated its labor contract with CTU by forcing school clerks and technology coordinators to report to school buildings in person when their work could feasibly be performed remotely.
CPS records produced in arbitration show that 60 percent of CPS schools have no central HVAC system, 50 percent have non-functional critical components of their air circulation systems and only 9 percent have air filtration systems (MERV 13-rated filter or portable HEPA filter) that meet public health recommendations for COVID-19 safety. The district claims to have initiated audits, assessments and repairs of its air circulation systems, but is now refusing to share reports detailing that alleged work, and refusing to allow the Union’s certified industrial hygienist to conduct inspections of any CPS school buildings.
The Union, as a collective bargaining representative, has a right under contract and the law to access worksites to assess the safety conditions under which its members are required to work.