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Mayor threatens legal action against Chicago teachers union in school safety standoff

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot blasted the union's Tuesday vote not to return to in-person teaching as an "unlawful, unilateral strike."

CHICAGO (CN) — Classes are canceled in Chicago public schools on Thursday, Chicago Public School District CEO Pedro Martinez said Wednesday night. It's the second day in a row that the district has decided to call off classes, following a Tuesday night vote by members of the Chicago Teachers Union not to return to in-person teaching.

The CTU reached this vote — supported by 73% of its membership — due to concerns over the district's readiness to safely return to in-person learning. While the union claims its members are ready and willing to teach remotely, Mayor Lori Lightfoot called the refusal to return to the physical classroom an "unlawful, unilateral strike" in a Wednesday night press conference. Going even further, she also encouraged CTU members to scab — to defy their union and come to teach in-person despite the union vote.

"We want our students and our teachers and our staff back on Friday. Anybody who does that will be paid," Lightfoot said. "Anybody who shows up for our kids and honors their commitment and obligation, we will welcome them with open arms."

With the promise of payment as the carrot, Lightfoot also threatened legal action as the stick. At the Wednesday press conference, she told reporters her office had filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the union. She did not clarify if the complaint was lodged with the Illinois or National Labor Relations Board.

"We will not pay you for an unlawful, unilateral strike," Lightfoot said, speaking directly to CTU members. "We will not pay you to abandon your post and your children at a time when they and their families need us most."

Lightfoot's characterization of the union's actions run counter to those of union members themselves, who maintained throughout Wednesday that they are not on strike. The Tuesday night vote was not for a work stoppage but to commit to a remote-only teaching plan, and on social media union members claimed they had been locked out of their remote teaching accounts by the school district. Subsequently, union members and sympathizers began to circulate the hashtag #LoriLockout Wednesday on Twitter, to protest what they said was a City Hall-imposed stoppage on their own desire to work.

"This [Chicago Teachers Union] school nurse has been locked out of work. I had 5 meetings today scheduled with families whose children need special education and have medical conditions," CTU school nurse Dennis Kosuth said in a Wednesday afternoon tweet. "We asked for safety and got a #LoriLockout instead."

Though negotiators from City Hall and the school district met with their CTU counterparts on Wednesday to try and hammer out a deal, nothing actionable had emerged by the end of the day. Martinez said this was why classes had to be cancelled Thursday. Though he also said at the Wednesday night press conference that schools would be open on Friday, he was noncommittal as to whether that meant classes would also resume then.

"The goal is for schools that have the staff, we would like to have academic activities on Friday ... if we can reach a deal," Martinez said.

Later Thursday night, the district announced that Friday classes had been canceled as well.

The CTU has published its own list of demands it wants the district to meet before teachers return to in-person teaching, with union president Jesse Sharkey saying Wednesday morning that he hopes teachers can be back in the classroom by Jan. 18.

“If you want to get us into the schools quicker, provide testing. Do what D.C. has done, New York has done, Los Angeles has done, Cleveland has done," Sharkey said Wednesday.

A sticking point for both camps is the union's insistence on mandatory regular Covid-19 testing for both students and staff. CPS already maintains mandatory testing for staff, but it is voluntary for students and their parents. Under CTU's proposal, testing would also be mandatory for students unless parents actively chose to opt out.

On Wednesday night Lightfoot called this plan "morally repugnant." Calling Covid-19 testing a "quasi-medical procedure," she said she would not want her own child to be tested as a matter of course or without her knowledge.

"If a parent wants their child tested, we'll get them tested. But they need to identify that for us affirmatively," Lightfoot said. "We are not going to flip the switch and take from parents the ability to determine for their own family, whether or not there's going to be testing."

Besides her alleged moral opposition to the proposal, when pushed by reporters Lightfoot also said that she was afraid CTU's plan would expose the city to lawsuits.

"The fact of the matter is, if we did something that then parents connected to some adverse reaction in a child, imagine the liability that we would be opening up ourselves to," Lightfoot said.

The CTU dismissed the mayor's concerns as ridiculous on social media following the press conference; in a tweet responding to the news its official Twitter profile said,

"Um, what?"

Negotiation between the city and the CTU are set to continue Thursday, while the city and state continue to struggle through the largest surge in the pandemic to date. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported over 32,000 new cases in Illinois on Wednesday alone, while the Chicago Department of Public Health reported an average of over 1,100 new infections in children per day in the city over the past week.

"West Side schools are facing a staggering 35% COVID positivity rate, with at least a dozen staffers and 40-60% of students out in many buildings post-winter break. CTU officials said in a Wednesday tweet. "This is why testing for safe return is essential. And why educators are working remotely for safety."

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