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Are coerced waiver votes legal?

The Chicago Public Schools announced on September 2, 2011 that three schools waived their contractual rights agreed to work longer days. One of those schools is just beginning, one has a tiny staff, and the third is raising as many questions as answers. But the story, about no more than one percent of the city's elementary teachers and Chicago Teachers Union members, dominated the education part of the news cycle at the beginning of the Labor Day weekend, just as Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Jean-Claude Brizard probably planned for. This isn't any legal for of negotiations under Illinois law, and in many ways it's unprecedented in Chicago history.

Chicago Public Schools "Chief Education Officer" Noemi Donoso (above left foreground at her first Chicago Board of Education meeting on June 15, 2011) came to Chicago (appointed by Jean-Claude Brizard)after a career spent mostly in charter schools and in privatization work. Her staff has apparently been responsible for much of the work being done to get principals to push waivers in the city's elementary schools. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. But let's go through the facts and try to get to the key question: Did these votes really happen, and, if so, were they legal?

First there is the issue of the press release that the large CPS Office of Communications put out around noon on Friday, September 2, 2011. The exact language on the CPS website reads:

This morning, teachers at Genevieve Melody Elementary and Skinner North Elementary schools voted on a waiver that would lengthen their school day by 90 minutes. The passage of waivers require a 50% + 1 of all voting teachers. Both schools received the required 50% + 1 to pass the waiver and extend their school day by 90 minutes.

An analysis of this statement and subsequent news media stories about these waivers votes bring into question the fact of what happened. In stories that came out about the votes, three schools were eventually named: Genevieve Melody Elementary, Skinner North Elementary and "STEM Magnet Academy." Melody has been a Chicago Public School for decades. Skinner North is one of the new schools created on the ruins of the Cabrini-Green public housing project (now a prairie to the south of the "Skinner North" site), and STEM really is too new to say anything about.

Clearly media stories contradict the CPS version of events that only two schools voted to extend the school day.

The news outlets reporting on this story failed to point out that "STEM Magnet Academy" has not even opened to its first student ∏— nor does it have an elected Local School Council. So technically there was not a schedule to change. In a story published by Substance News, a union source is quoted STEM did not yet have a union delegate, and was therefore not legally able to hold a waiver vote without requesting that the vote be conducted by the union's representatives.

According to the current Contract between the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union, members have the right to vote on waiving provisions of contract. The larger issue in this recent attempt at using a classic union busting (called "Favoritism and Division" in union busting manuals) technique is the Illinois Labor Relations Act (IELRA), The IELRA prohibits coercion of bargaining unit members and defines such actions as an Unfair Labor Practice.

There is no disputing the facts. In all the media stories, there are statements made of demands on these schools to vote for a longer school day. It should also be noted that both Mayor Emanuel and CEO Brizard did not hold a press conference to answer the complex questions raised by the events they talked about in their press release, but instead chose to feed the story line into the news cycle with a press release that came out of CPS in time to generate TV "news" on a Friday afternoon.

In the Sun-Times story it stated that:

One teacher at Skinner, who asked not to be named, said she voted against the longer school day but said many of the staff probably felt pressured to agree to the change.[1]

Then there were clear examples of financial enticements to produce affirmative votes:

Teachers in those schools will receive a lump sum payment equal to 2 percent [2]

Teachers at Melody and Skinner will be given a pay hike, a "lump sum of two percent equal to average teachers salary," explained CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll.

When STEM Magnet Academy extends its day in the new year, it will receive $75,000. Teachers there will receive lump sum payouts of $800.[3]

….schools that implement the longer days in September will receive $150,000 in discretionary funds. [4]

But as more becomes known about the way in which CPS officials handled the build up to Friday, September 2, it's clear that a lot more was operating both in public and behind the scenes. There is further evidence of coercion in an email pressuring CPS principals to get the waivers votes to pass in their schools. The email was sent by a central office staffer at CPS named Stephen Zrike on August 28, 2011. Zrike came to Chicago last year to become a "Chief Area Officer" after a stormy but media crazed time as a principal in the Boston area. CPS still lists him in budget documents as a CAO (at a salary of $151,000 per year, although the area offices no longer exists (having been replaced with things called "Networks" by Jean-Claude Brizard (and the CAOs replaced with people now called "Chiefs of Schools"). Zrike, whatever his current title, is obviously still working at CPS. Here is what he wrote:

Dear Principals, please know that a team member from the Chief Education Office will be contacting you this morning to discuss options regarding a longer school day in CPS. Please make yourself available when you get the call. This is a high priority – and I appreciate your cooperation.

Thanks

Steve

Digging deeper into this attempt to divide the union it may be that not only is coercion of bargaining unit members illegal under the IELRA but the fact that CPS is trying to go outside of the normal process of bargaining with the employee representative in good faith over issues.

The language in the IELRA clearly defines a labor organization as the exclusive representative on certain issues. The intent of the waiver provision in the CTU contract is to help schools adjust contract articles to meet the needs to particular school communities. There is a clear delineation under state law that there is only one representative that could bargain over wages since it affects all bargaining unit members. What is obvious from the various media reports is that CPS is trying to negotiate wages with individual work units rather than the exclusive representative, the Chicago Teachers Union.

In addition to the IELRA, Article One of the Chicago Teachers Union contract, which has been in the contract for 43 years, makes it clear that the Chicago Teachers Union is the exclusive bargaining agent for the city's teachers and that the Board of Education has to bargain with the union if it wants to discuss matters of pay, benefits, and working conditions with individual teachers.

REFERENCES

(115 ILCS 5/) Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act

“Teachers At Skinner North And Melody Showed 'Courage' In Voting For Longer School Day, Chicago's Mayor Proclaims” Substance™ News

[1] "Three CPS Schools Break from Union, OK Longer School Day" Chicago Sun-Times.

[2] "As Schools Break Ranks, Union Looks for Answers” Chicago News Cooperative.

[3] "Three Schools Agree to Longer Days" NBC Chicago.

[4] "Longer School Day: Teachers at 3 Schools Act Early to Approve Longer Day" Chicago Tribune.



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