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Blaze News original: Teachers' unions have no problem holding students' futures hostage. Parents are suing to make them think twice.
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Blaze News original: Teachers' unions have no problem holding students' futures hostage. Parents are suing to make them think twice.

Teachers' unions strike for various reasons. Sometimes, it is a matter of endangering parents' livelihoods, jeopardizing children's futures, and altogether holding local authorities to ransom in order to gain leverage at the bargaining table when discussing compensation and perks. Other times, it's a matter applying similar pressure in order to advance a costly political agenda that might not otherwise gain traction if pursued via transparent democratic processes free of coercion.

Teachers' union strikes and so-called sickouts are hardly a new phenomenon. However, the pandemic exposed some of the callous calculations frequently behind them as well as their pernicious impact on kids, zapping some parents' tolerance for the corresponding school closures, especially when illegal, as strikes are in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

Several Americans keen to hold teachers' and professors' unions accountable for allegedly illegal strikes in Oregon, Massachusetts, Illinois, and New Jersey, have recently filed lawsuits, which have the potential to become chastening class actions.

In these four cases — any one of which could, if successful, strike a new tone nationally and serve as a reminder to the teachers' unions precisely who is in charge — the plaintiffs are represented by attorneys Daniel Suhr and Patrick Hughes, both of whom had hands in the U.S. Supreme Court winning cases Janus v. AFSCME and BST Holdings, LLC v. OSHA.

Blaze News recently spoke to Suhr as well as to two of the plaintiffs: a mother in law enforcement adversely impacted along with her children by the illegal January 2022 Chicago Teachers Union strike and a New Jersey student affected by the April 2023 Rutgers unions' strike, both of which are said to be illegal strikes.

Suhr told Blaze News that parents, such as Amy Kessem, one of the two plaintiffs in the Chicago suit, have "seen what happens when schools are shut down, whether by the pandemic or by a strike, and so they're not willing to put up with it."

"They're ready to stand up for their kids," said Suhr. "They're ready to fight back for control of their schools and that's, I think, a game change for education broadly."

While historically, unions ostensibly figured they were running the show, Suhr indicated parents are now making clear, "No, we're going to be the judge."

Kessem understands that not everyone is battle-ready, and the threat of backlash serves as a significant deterrent when it comes to possibly taking a stand against the teachers' unions. However, she stressed to Blaze News that it is nevertheless important for parents "to have the courage to stand up for their children and be their advocate."

Just as parents are beginning to flex their muscles, some students tired of being wielded as pawns in self-interested ideologues' games are similarly going to war with the unions.

Jeremy Li, a student affected by the illegal Rutgers University unions' strike last year who has since sued, told Blaze News that the "stakes are incredibly high."

Taking action now and revealing the unions' vulnerability may determine whether "future generations of students can continue to learn in an environment where teachers and professors have student learning as their main focus versus just getting another raise every school year, striking to get it, and basically jeopardizing student learning," said Li.

Threatening lives and livelihoods in Chicago

After working hard to keep students out of the classroom during the pandemic, the Chicago Teachers Union — whose president apparently opted out of entrusting one of her own daughters to the educational care of CTU members — initiated a strike against Chicago Public Schools on Jan. 5, 2022.

The strike, a response to unscientific concerns over supposed coronavirus surges, was dressed up as a "remote work action."

A reactionary lawsuit launched by parents prior to the strike's conclusion noted that while "CTU claims its teachers [were] willing to work remotely, teachers may not work remotely without the approval of the Chicago Board of Education. CTU members voted to refuse to teach under the conditions set forth by CPS. That is a strike by definition."

The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act permits the CTU and its members to hold a strike but requires them to satisfy a number of conditions before doing so, which they apparently had failed to do in this strike.

The strike prickled then-Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who the New York Times indicated had urged teachers to defy the union and turn up to work. Lightfoot repeatedly called the strike an "illegal work stoppage."

"Nobody signs up for being a home-schooler at the last minute," said Lightfoot. "We can't forget about how disruptive that remote process is to individual parents who have to work, who can’t afford the luxury of staying home."

Amy Kessem, a parent of two among the roughly 340,000 students the CTU kept out of the classrooms for five days, told Blaze News that the illegal strike "impacted not only my life but my kids' lives."

Kessem, who is in law enforcement, was working the midnight shift at the time of the strike. One of two of her kids in the CPS system was in seventh grade. The other was a senior.

"It was a struggle because you know I was coming off the whole COVID thing and now we're facing the same situation. It was scary," said Kessem. "It was scary for my kids because they had this nightmare situation where they lost an entire year of their lives from, you know, COVID protocols. They get no sports, no interactions with their friends, no dances … all that."

The union's continued weaponization of the threat of COVID-19 spread did not just spike the kids' efforts at re-establishing a sense of routine and normalcy. It also spelled trouble for their mother.

Whereas a return to normal night have meant that Kessem could nab a few hours of sleep after working to make the teachers' increasingly dangerous city safe, now she — like thousands of other parents — had to pick up the slack left by CTU members during those five days.

"My job is very dangerous, obviously. Right, and so for me to have a lack of sleep because I'm now having to take care of my children at home when they should be in school — and that was a very last minute that really took me by surprise — it put me in a dangerous situation sometimes when I would have to go to work or respond to these calls," said Kessem. "It's sometimes very dangerous, right, with a lack of sleep."

When pressed on whether she would characterize the strikes as potentially deadly in light of their impact on her vivacity at work, Kessem answered in the affirmative.

Although she lost sleep, the night shift enabled Kessem to be with her kids during the day. She also benefited from the help her ex-husband provided during that time. "I know a lot of other parents weren't that lucky," Kessem told Blaze News.

Kessem sympathizes with other parents who have been placed in a similar situation, especially others with dangerous jobs such as law enforcement as well as those with younger kids at home.

Blaze News reached out for CTU for comment but did not receive a response by deadline.

Three types of impact

When asked about the ultimate cost of illegal strikes on children and on families, Suhr told Blaze News that there are really "three types of suffering that they cause."

"The first is learning loss. Students are out of schools for days, weeks. In Portland, it was a month of school being shut down, and so there's a very real learning loss that comes when schools aren't in school," said the attorney.

A group of Portland Public Schools parents recently filed suit seeking damages in excess of $100 million from the Portland Association of Teachers and the Oregon Education Association for an illegal strike that kept more than 44,000 kids out of school from Nov. 1 to Nov. 26, 2023.

The strike had been illegal and an unfair labor practice, according to the complaint, because "it was not limited to mandatory subjects of bargaining."

A team at the University of Nebraska at Omaha examined the impact of teacher strikes on American high school students and found that "each day of school missed due to teacher strikes is associated with a 0.015-point decline in GPA for affected students. The typical strike corresponds to a 0.158-point GPA drop for affected students."

The researchers' working paper, published by the Social Science Research Network, suggested that low-performing students were also less likely to graduate as a result of teachers' strikes.

Nordic scientists noted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that learning losses from 35 days of missed school owing to closures amounted to a "learning loss of about 3 percentile points or 0.08 standard deviations" — the equivalent to one-fifth of a school year. They further noted that learning losses were up to 60% larger "among students from less-educated homes."

According to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Educational Development, Colombian students "exposed to more strikes during secondary education score, on average, 41% of a [standard deviation] less in math, and 29% of a SD less in reading."

German researchers noted in a 2021 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology that student achievement was negatively impacted by school closures but disproportionately among younger students and students from poor families.

The second type of suffering that strikes cause, according to Suhr, is "just the very practical cost to parents of disrupted childcare arrangements."

"We rely on schools to care for our kids," said the attorney. "We go to work — I think about my client, Amy Kessem, who is a Chicago police officer, right. … We rely on schools to make it possible for us to do our jobs."

"When schools shut down unexpectedly, that forces parents to hire babysitters, hire a tutor, … take days off of work, use vacation time, sick time, skip shifts," continued Suhr. "There's a real financial cost to that."

Suhr told Blaze News the "third type of damages is the emotional cost."

"Students want to be in school. They want to be with their friends. They want to be [engaged] in their activities," said the attorney.

A 2022 systematic review published in JAMA Pediatrics indicated short-term closures may be linked to "adverse mental health symptoms and health behaviors among children and adolescents."

A 2020 study published in JAMA Network Open similarly indicated a link between school closures and "mental health problems among students owing to a prolonged state of physical isolation from peers, teachers, extended family and community networks." Depression shot up among the students tracked in the study, and suicide attempts more than doubled.

Not just kids are dealt an emotional blow by strikes.

"The parents want the kids to be there, and there's a great deal of anxiety that's created when you're tuning in every night to the 10 p.m. news trying to discern whether the strike is over and your kids are going back to school or if you need to call in sick again tomorrow," said Suhr.

While all families whose kids have been ousted from school as a consequence of strikes likely suffer some consequence, the effects are not always evenly distributed.

Suhr suggested the families from "low-income backgrounds" and those with kids with special needs often disproportionately suffer the impact.

"If you're in a low-income family, in an hourly-wage job, missing a shift is a big deal. You know, you may just not get paid, period, for that time. And so it has an especially harsh effect on working-class families," said the attorney.

As for the kids with special needs that the CTU, the Portland Association of Teachers, and the Newton Teachers Association may have had kicked out of the classroom with their strikes, life was likely turned upside down.

"Routines are extremely important to kids with special needs," said Suhr. "They get additional services at school that are kind of essential to their well-being. And then parents of special needs kids can't just call a neighbor or a babysitter, right. Like their childcare arrangements are a lot more complicated."

Hurtful by design

These three types of suffering apparently are not a bug but a feature when it comes to these types of strikes.

"From the union's perspective, that suffering is the point of the strike," said the attorney. "School boards don't experience suffering when schools are shut down because, you know, they're not your typical private sector employer. It's not like they manufacture widgets and when they're not able to manufacture widgets, they can't make money. … It doesn't work that way in the public sector."

"The whole premise of the strike is to cause as much pain for parents and students as possible in order to use that as leverage on the elected officials who are making the policy decisions that the strike is about," continued Suhr. "Creating the suffering is the point of the strike. That's what gives the strike power. That's what gives the union leverage. … It's why they don't strike in the summer."

Jeremy Li, like tens of thousands of other students at Rutgers University, learned this lesson firsthand.

Li was getting ready for finals last April when three unions — members of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, and the Rutgers AAUP-Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey, altogether comprising more than 9,000 workers — went on strike for more money, effectively shuttering all campuses and classes.

Jonathan Holloway, the president of the university, made clear in advance that the strike would be illegal, which NJ.com noted at the time union officials disputed despite clear evidence to the contrary in case law.

Despite big talk at the outset, after the unions created chaos and denied around 67,000 students a weeks' worth of education they paid dearly for, Holloway and the university apparently caved.

The tentative agreement that resolved the ransom would afford full-time faculty a 14% salary increase by July 2025. Part-time lecturers would get a 40% salary increase. Graduate students’ stipends would also get a 30% boost.

Li, a commuter student at the New Brunswick campus, told Blaze News, "This happened at the worst time — right before exam time. We're stressed out. … You throw in that strike, you know, creates a lot of mayhem for a lot of students."

"I know a lot of people had very important exams, and they didn't know whether or not the material would be covered on the exam or not," continued Li.

The student plaintiff emphasized that extra to the learning loss and anxiety, students weren’t compensated for the lost time despite shelling out in full for tuition.

"They're receiving reduced education because of this strike," Li said of his fellow students. "This really highlights the fact that a lot of teacher unions and professor unions are holding hostage student education in order to further their own self-interest."

Li suggested that while some students were left exposed, the strike had an inverse result among the strikers.

"I don't know what the long-term implications of this are, but I can guarantee that Rutgers professor unions feel empowered right now. This will have a ripple effect across the nation. Other professor unions are going to start striking. Graduate students are going to start striking," continued Li. "This is the first one and they feel empowered by this strike. I guarantee they're going to do it again."

Blaze News reached out to the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey, the AAUP Biomedical and Health Sciences of New Jersey, and the Rutgers Adjunct Faculty Union, but none of the unions responded by deadline.

Fighting back

When pressed about what she would recommend other parents do when facing an illegal teachers' strike, Kessem told Blaze News, "Hold them accountable."

"I was fortunate enough that I had a group that was willing to hold the CTU accountable and bring a lawsuit against them," said Kessem. "I know a lot of other parents probably would be scared to do that. You know, they would probably be fearful — I have friends tell me that they would be afraid that their kids would have some sort of repercussions brought against them by their teachers if they found out that they were part of this lawsuit. … I just don’t have that fear."

Kessem indicated she is simply doing what she taught her kids to do: Stand up and stand strong.

The Illinois mother further indicated this is not a matter of being or becoming anti-union. After all, Kessem is a pro-union Republican who is herself, by virtue of her work in law enforcement, part of a union. The problem is not unions in general but rather those teachers' unions willing to gamble with students' futures. Kessem stressed "not all unions are created equal."

The plaintiffs in the four cases that Suhr and Hughes have brought in recent months clearly understand that one way forward is to hit the offending unions in the wallets and send a message to prospective strikers and families alike. The Portland lawsuit filed earlier this month is, again, seeking damages in excess of $100 million. The Rutgers lawsuit seeks roughly $150 million.

"I think any win in any of these cases is going to really be a lesson nationally to teachers' unions across the board that parents will no longer stand by silently when they shut down schools with illegal strikes and that the financial cost of engaging in illegal activity is real," said Suhr.

Suhr and Hughes were looking to deliver that lesson on behalf of clients in a fifth case against Kentucky 120-United AFT and its cofounder Nema Brewer over a February 2019 work stoppage; however, Judge Kimberly Nell Bunnell of the Kentucky 22nd Circuit Court 9th Division dismissed the case last week.

Nevertheless, Suhr indicated that his clients and their stories serve as examples "to parents across the country that by getting involved, by standing up, and speaking out, they really can make a difference in the lives of their schools and their communities."

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Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon

Joseph MacKinnon is a staff writer for Blaze News.
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