Teachers Union to Allow Strikes Over Lack of Virus Safety (2)

July 28, 2020, 4:51 PM; Updated: July 28, 2020, 7:55 PM

The nation’s second-largest teachers union said it will allow educators to strike this fall if government officials don’t take proper safety measures to protect students and staff from the coronavirus—a powerful bargaining chip to press school management for changes before the start of the fall semester.

The 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers announced a resolution Tuesday to permit local affiliates to strike as a last resort if schools don’t modify their arrangements to accommodate social distancing, provide protective equipment, and have a plan in place to close schools in the event of an infections spike.

“If authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, as our executive council voted last week, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said in prepared remarks to union delegates.

If the federal government “can send a life raft to the cruise industry, give hedge funds a free lunch, and offer a tidy handout to Kanye and the Kushner family … they sure as hell can help working families, and can help educators ensure our kids get the education they need,” Weingarten said.

The resolution stipulates that communities must have a daily community infection rate of less than 5% and a transmission rate of less than 1% in order for schools to open. In addition, teachers at high risk of serious health problems if they contract Covid-19 should be given special accommodations, and schools should update building ventilation systems as needed.

The resolution says the national union will help affiliates challenge school reopening plans in court and will would explore options “from the bargaining table to legislatures and the courtroom” to enforce safety measures.

The option to strike could set up a showdown in Republican-led states eager to restart their economies. In addition to New York and California, AFT represents teachers in Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas. It has 3,000 local affiliates nationwide.

This month, an AFT affiliate in Florida filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis to stop the state-mandated reopening of public schools in August.

A Senate GOP coronavirus package released Monday included $70 billion in aid for schools, but two-thirds of that money would be reserved for districts that offer at least partial instruction in person. Democrats have pledged to oppose any proposal that uses aid to pressure schools to reopen.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union with 3 million members, suggested it may take similar steps. While the union did not mention a strike directly, it said it’s “not ready to take any options off the table” to keep students safe.

(Updates with additional reporting, adds NEA comment at end.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at ikullgren@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com

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