News & Commentary

February 8, 2021

Fred Messner

Fred Messner is a student at Harvard Law School.

The long-running dispute between the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and the city’s school district (CPS) may be nearing its end.  On Sunday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Union announced a tentative deal that would resume in-person learning in a series of staggered waves over the coming month and could potentially restart pre-K and special education programs as soon as this week.  The deal also includes provision for the district to revert to remote learning if certain indicators show renewed covid spread.  Additionally, the “framework for the resumption of in-person instruction,” as the union has referred to it internally, contains hygiene and ventilation protocols and a promise that CPS will provide a minimum of 1,500 first vaccine doses each week, though it does not appear that these will necessarily be limited to members of the CTU bargaining unit.  Moreover, the framework does not appear to address the disciplinary status of dozens of teachers who were locked out during the district’s first attempt to return to in-person learning.  Under CTU’s rules, the deal requires ratification by its full 25,000+-teacher membership to take effect.  Union officials suggested that vote could come as early as Monday evening.

The New York Times profiled Randi Weingarten, President of the country’s second-largest teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers.  Addressing the ongoing disputes over school reopenings, Weingarten struck a conciliatory tone, emphasizing her commitment to getting back to in-person instruction as soon as possible.  At the same time, Weingarten emphasized the “good reasons” teachers have to be skeptical that reopenings will be conducted with attention to their safety.  Necessities like soap and water, she explained, were often unavailable even in more normal times, making it hard for teachers to trust that those necessities—and the additional equipment and capital investments needed to make schools save for in-person teaching—will actually materialize.  “You cannot say, ‘Well, half a loaf in a pandemic is going to be good enough.,’” Weingarten insisted, when “half a loaf is what teachers have been dealing with for most of their lives.”

Elsewhere, Bloomberg Law reports that one of Texas’s largest hospital systems has begun offering $500 “hope bonuses” incentives for its employees to get vaccinated against covid, joining a growing set of large employers that have come to see financial incentives as the most effective route to a vaccinated workforce.  While the bonus programs arguably raise concerns about potential violations of federal discrimination law—for example, if an employee is ineligible for a bonus due to a religious objection to taking the vaccine—worker and employer advocates expressed unusually full-throated agreement that the incentive programs are the right move.  The EEOC has only just begun work to solidify the legal regime governing these initiatives.  After receiving an official request from over 40 industry groups to clarify its position last week, the Commission on Monday indicated that it was “considering the issue carefully” and would issue additional guidance if necessary.

But even when companies have been willing to top up workers’ pay in exchange for them accepting the covid vaccine, these same businesses continue to resist broad-based, lasting wage increases.  The New York Times reports today that Kroger, a national grocery chain with roughly 2,750 stores, has announced two store closures in Long Beach, California in response, it claims, to the municipality’s new ordinance requiring hazard pay for grocery workers.  Local labor leaders suggested that the company’s asserted justification for the closings—that the ordinances had simply made the stores uneconomical—was pretextual and that Kroger’s meant rather to “intimidate workers and communities.”  The chain, she explained, is desperately seeking to head off similar legislation in other markets with the simple message that “If you pass these types of ordinances, there will be consequences.”

Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman officially kicks off his bid for the U.S. Senate today.  Fetterman, former mayor of the western Pennsylvania town of Braddock, has long been a vocal advocate for unions and is expected to make organized labor a central theme of his campaign.  Worker priorities cut across more discussed intra-party lines, so Fetterman’s expressly pro-labor platform has already generated an unconventional slate of positions for a Democratic party politician.  Fetterman, for example, has declared his support for much of the Green New Deal, particularly the initiatives that would require union labor to transition to cleaner energy sources, but opposes a fracking ban that could obviate many other union jobs.  In these early days of the 2022 campaign, two Pennsylvania locals representing almost 80,000 workers have already declared their support for his candidacy.

Finally, ballots will be mailed to eligible voters today in the elections to unionize Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse, marking the next phase in the workers’ efforts to organize in the face of massive resistance by Amazon management.  As Kevin explained yesterday in a detailed overview of the organizing drive, Amazon has attempted to thwart the vote at the NLRB and blanketed the plant with anti-union propaganda.  Ballots must be returned by the end of March.

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