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Parents suing Chicago Teachers Union over COVID-19 strike

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(The Center Square) – Parents of Chicago school students are suing the Chicago Teachers Union seeking damages over a teachers strike during COVID-19 that kept children out of school longer.

The lawsuits, filed by attorneys Patrick Hughes and Daniel Suhr from Hughes and Suhr LLC, stem from a strike that took place in January 2022. The attorneys said the strikes forced Chicago parents to face unexpected childcare costs, take unpaid leave from work and cope with additional financial strains.

John Kugler is a former employee of the Chicago Teachers Union and said he was there to help prepare the January 2022 strike.

“The 2022 COVID strike was more about the union election than it was about COVID. Remember, there was also a mayoral election and the strike was used to see what the strength of Stacy Davis Gates would be” in a match up against Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Kugler said.

The CTU ultimately supported Brandon Johnson in the mayoral election. Johnson beat Lightfoot to become mayor.

The recent lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court accuses the union and leadership of allegedly conspiring to call an illegal strike. The union was protesting Chicago Public Schools. CTU claims CPS didn’t do enough to protect them from the spread of COVID-19.

Kugler said part of the rationale behind the CTU’s decision to walk out on students likely rests with Davis Gates’ desire for public office. During the course of the strike, Lightfoot repeatedly referred to it as an “illegal work stoppage.”

In May 2022, Davis Gates was elected president of the union after previously serving as vice president under Jesse Sharkey, who stepped down. Davis Gates defeated two other challengers to become president.

Teacher strikes are illegal in eight of the 10 largest school districts in the nation, with Chicago being one of the two districts where strikes are allowed. Los Angeles Unified School District is the other, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

A spokesman from the Hughes and Suhr LLC law firm said in Chicago Public Schools, 76% of all students are classified as low-income. They said teachers earn nearly twice the average income of the families they serve and the timing and length of the strike was particularly egregious.

Kugler said, in his opinion, CTU deserves punitive consequences. Before he left his position, Kugler was employed by the CTU for over 10 years, where he was part of the union while strike preparation was happening. He said there’s a process to strike.

“You have to take votes, give notice, and have mediation. None of that happened. Well then you can say, ‘well we are taking a wildcat strike because of some working conditions, COVID is unsafe.’ If you do that you need some paperwork, like grievances. None of that happened,” said Kugler. “Naturally if you scare people enough they’re going to vote with you.”

A spokesman from Hughes and Suhr LLC said the January 2022 strike, along with violating provisions under Illinois law, also breached the collective bargaining agreement between CTU and CPS.

The 2024 Hughes and Suhr LLC lawsuit isn’t the first lawsuit. There was a lawsuit in 2022 at the time of the strike and Jeffrey Schwab, senior counsel at the Liberty Justice Center, said the intent with that lawsuit was really to get them to stop the strike.

“It really created a problem for a lot of parents when all of sudden, without much notice, their kids were home from school on days when they expected the kids to be in school,” said Schwab.

Schwab was skeptical of the motivation behind the strike and whether it really was about COVID and unsafe working conditions.

“The teachers were back in school after the Christmas break for a few days before they went on strike and that struck me as odd,” said Schwab. “If you’re saying the teachers were unsafe in schools then why even go back for a few days after break.”

The Liberty Justice Center lawsuit from 2022 is over.

In the 2024 lawsuit, attorneys Hughes and Suhr are representing lead Chicago plaintiff Ammie Kessem, who is a police officer with two children in CPS at the time of the strike. The plaintiffs are trying to get a Cook County Circuit Court judge to certify the case as a class action lawsuit.

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