Updated Dec. 1, 2017
On a crisp fall day last month, nearly 450 secretaries, clerks, classroom assistants, and school nurses gathered picket signs in northwest suburban Palatine and walked out on strike.
When they did, their employer, Community Consolidated School District 15, took a highly unusual next step.
The district immediately canceled health insurance for all striking support staff workers.
“It’s an extraordinary use of health insurance as a weapon,” said Paul Klenck, deputy chief counsel with the Illinois Education Association, which represents the support staff workers. Some 725 people — insured workers plus family members — lost health care coverage the day the strike began.
The union has filed a legal challenge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board.
Longtime school observers said they can’t remember a single school district in Illinois that has tried the approach.
At a Nov. 16 hearing, a union attorney called the cancellation of health benefits a “shock and awe tactic” that converts workers’ right to strike into “a paper right that employees are too fearful to exercise.” Union officials said the loss of insurance was a principal reason why support workers returned to the job two weeks after walking out. They got their insurance back after returning to work. They still do not have a contract.
For its part, the school district says it warned employees it would be cutting their health care coverage if they went on strike. They said they’re standing on a decades-old legal principle that says employers are not required to subsidize a strike.
The bitter ongoing labor dispute raises questions about workers’ right to strike — and how far school districts can go in pressuring employees to get back to work, or to not join picket lines in the first place. And it highlights a debate about whether employers have any obligation to provide benefits to striking workers — particularly in public -sector jobs where taxpayers are footing the bill.
“If (employees) don’t meet the eligibility to be a full-time employee, then we can’t gift them health insurance, we can’t gift them wages,” said District 15 spokeswoman Morgan Delack. “It’s taxpayer money that we’re given to use.”
Looming over the current fight with secretaries and classroom aides is an unprecedented 10-year contract the school district signed with classroom teachers in 2016. The extraordinarily long deal — which gave teachers 3.6 percent annual raises — was seen as reckless by many community members and became a flashpoint in local school board races this year. Six of seven school board members are new.
Workers underestimated school district threat
Classroom aide Cathy Knobloch was “terrified” when she discovered her insurance had been cut off. She said her husband has muscular dystrophy and survived a stroke. He relies on a feeding tube to survive.
“My heart started pounding, and I just was in shock. I couldn’t believe it,” said Knoblauch, who began working in the district nearly 20 years ago when her daughter started kindergarten there.
The union said others who lost insurance include a staffer undergoing chemotherapy treatments and a pregnant employee scheduled for a caesarean delivery.
But the school board said employees were warned.
An Oct. 3 letter signed by school board president Lisa Szczupaj stated that “during a strike, all salary, insurance (including prescription drug plans) and other Board paid benefits shall cease for striking members. No salary, no Board paid insurance and no other Board paid benefits (such as paid leaves) will be provided. Also, there is no guarantee that salary or benefits will be made up.”
“We do not want members to be surprised,” the letter said.
Knobloch said she didn’t take the letter seriously; she saw it as a threat meant to keep her and her colleagues from using the biggest gun in their arsenal — a strike.
“That’s not anything I’ve ever heard of with family members or friends who’ve been involved in negotiations for a contract, people going on strike. ... You just don’t do that,” Knoblauch said.
She said losing insurance “was a blow to my family that I just don’t know how to describe, I really don’t — other than taking us down at the knees. And for me to look at my husband and see him in pain and stressing because my insurance was taken away ... it just makes me wonder how and why someone could do this.”
‘I didn’t take anyone’s insurance’
Board president Szczupaj said there was no extensive debate before deciding to cut employees’ health care. “It was relatively cut and dried,” she said.
“Their health insurance was associated with their coming to work. So, they didn’t come to work? They lost that compensation and benefit. The district put it out so that everyone was well aware,” Szczupaj said. “I didn’t take anyone’s health insurance.”
And the board was not told by their attorneys they were doing anything unusual by rescinding insurance, Szczupaj added. The legal firm hired by the district, Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, did not return calls for comment. The firm represents school districts, municipalities, and park districts across the metro area.
“If I was in a situation where I had a child or a spouse that was severely ill, and their life was dependent on my medical insurance that I get from my job, you can bet that I would never walk away from my job,“ Szczupaj said. “But that is me; that’s the way that I would do it.”
Szczupaj said all workers were told they could pay for COBRA, at a cost of $1,840 for a family and $697 for an individual. That’s more than some support staff make per month, union leaders pointed out. Wages in the union start at $11.10 an hour for beginning clerical assistants and go to $37.76 per hour for a registered nurse with 25 years experience. Most employees in the union make under $18,000 a year.
How unions prep for a strike
Unions take health care benefits into account in planning for a strike, said Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. They count on employers making payments to health care providers at the beginning of the month, and understand workers are covered to the end.
“It’s not a blank check. It’s not as if unions could expect to keep health care benefits indefinitely. But it’s quite unusual for people to be promptly cut off — that is, for an employer to go out of their way to call the provider and say, ‘I’m cutting off these benefits,’” said Sharkey, echoing the comments of other education labor experts contacted by WBEZ.
Sharkey said he’s keeping an eye on Palatine.
“Even at our worst, CPS never did that,” Sharkey said. “If you poison the well of your relationship to such an extent where you’re saying, ‘Look, I don’t care about your family, I don’t care about your health, die for all I care’ — how is that going to work when the labor dispute eventually settles?”
Delack, the District 15 spokeswoman, confirmed that Palatine employees who quit — or even employees who are fired — typically keep their insurance through the end of the month.
The legal questions and the road ahead
So can a school district legally cut benefits to striking employees?
According to Robert Perkovich, a labor mediator and former director of the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, there are legal arguments supporting both sides.
The labor board is scheduled to hear this case early next year.
It’s hard to know whether other school districts will follow Palatine’s example and begin cutting off health care benefits when teachers, aides, janitors, or bus drivers go on strike. But Perkovich said the question makes him think of 1981, when President Ronald Reagan replaced striking air traffic controllers.
“Prior to that, the threat of using replacement workers or locking out was really fairly rare,” he said. ”Not that (Reagan) came up with something new — they had that right for many, many years. Employers just never used it. And I think most people would agree that after the president did that in , employers began to say, ‘Whoa. Wait a second. Maybe we can do this too.’”
Szczupaj said District 15 board members didn’t realize they were crossing any line when they decided to cut off health care benefits. Five of the six new members had run on a platform of greater fiscal responsibility.
The district took other aggressive measures to counter the striking secretaries and classroom aides. On the strike’s second day, the district won an unusual emergency legal order from a judge that sent one-third of workers back to schools — forcing them to cross the picket line. The judge ruled the workers were essential to health and safety of children and thus could not strike, though he reversed that decision a week later, after hearing more evidence.
Two weeks into the strike, the district also threatened to hire permanent replacements for Knoblauch and the other picketing workers. That threat, plus the cancelling of their health insurance, made the school staffers decide to return to work.
Knoblauch said her sick husband believes the district rescinded health care as “punishment.”
“A lot of the community was upset about the 10-year teacher contract. And none of us had anything to do with that,” Knoblauch said. “But rumors were swirling that this was absolute punishment for that contract and then the fact that we decided to go on strike and stick up for ourselves.”
The district denies the two contracts are in any way linked and says the 10-year contract is misunderstood by the public. District leaders argue it’s a good deal for taxpayers because new teachers are hired in at lower rates. They say teacher costs are increasing at just 1 percent per year.
Despite the bitterness of the dispute with aides and other support staff, both the union and the school board in Palatine say they are not far apart on the substantive issues of a new contract.
However, the two sides haven’t spoken for a month, and there are no talks scheduled.
Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow on Twitter @WBEZeducation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year that President Ronald Reagan replaced air traffic controllers. He fired them in 1981, not 1980. The earlier version also included information about what happens when a contract expires that does not apply in the Palatine case.