Faced with what they consider unsafe working conditions, City Colleges of Chicago faculty and staff say they are considering a strike.
Faculty and staff at City Colleges of Chicago are threatening to strike after accusing the administration of failing to ensure a safe work environment for employees required to return in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Leaders of the unions representing faculty, clerical staff and adult educators allege the reopening plans at each of the seven colleges in the community college system are insufficient and have not been implemented well.
Staff from multiple colleges said at a press conference Thursday that since the schools reopened Monday there has not been routine sanitization and little to no mask enforcement or proper social distancing guidelines. On Tuesday, staff were also alerted that a security officer at Olive Harvey College on the Far South Side tested positive for COVID-19. He was last on campus on July 29.
"Our ventilation isn't the best; garbage isn't being picked up [in] the bathrooms; the running water is coming out yellow. So, even when you go to wash your hands and do what you can do ... they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing," said Adriana Alvarez, a clerical assistant at Olive Harvey who fought back tears as she spoke. "It's not fair to put everyone's life at risk. ... We deserve to be taken care of and all our lives matter."
The unions are demanding clerical and student services employees return to remote work as they have done since the beginning of pandemic. They also want the Chicago City Council's education committee to hold hearings on the community college reopening plans, which City Colleges released last month.
CIty Colleges of Chicago did not immediately return a request for comment.
Employees also said new Plexiglas barriers are insufficient and not stationary. One union representative said she saw students moving the Plexiglas barriers to the side when speaking with staff, and people are wearing masks below their chins. Touchless hand sanitizer machines were promised but have not been provided.
"There's just an overall no accountability, no follow up for measures to assure we are safe," said Valeria Davis, chair of the working conditions committee for Local 1708. "It's really sad that we're not valued."
Faculty have not gone on strike at City Colleges since 2004. Clerical workers held a one-day strike last year over contract negotiations.
While the current faculty contract includes a clause that they will not strike while a contract is in place, Cook County Colleges Teachers Union leaders say their statewide and national affiliates have pledged to support them if they decide to strike over safety concerns.
"While a strike itself would be illegal, if our members decide it's necessary, we will do so," said CCCTU President Tony Johnston.
Johnston said a survey of their members found 85% said they would support a safety strike and 75% do not trust City Colleges administration to safely reopen campuses.
The union is holding a meeting Friday to discuss next steps, starting with a possible no confidence vote in City Colleges of Chicago administration. It hasn't scheduled when to take a vote to authorize a strike, but if they do approve a strike, it would begin the first day of classes on Aug. 24.
Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.