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D.C. seeks a temporary restraining order against teachers union to order that teachers stop discussing a strike

Samantha Bertocchi, a pre-K teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary, decorates her car on Jan. 30  for a teacher drive-by protest against schools reopening outside Savoy Elementary School in Southeast  Washington.
Samantha Bertocchi, a pre-K teacher at Harriet Tubman Elementary, decorates her car on Jan. 30 for a teacher drive-by protest against schools reopening outside Savoy Elementary School in Southeast Washington. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

The District has asked a judge to stop the Washington Teachers’ Union from engaging in any talks about a potential strike as the city attempts to bring teachers and students back to school buildings Tuesday for the first time since March, according to a request for a temporary restraining order filed in D.C. Superior Court on Monday.

The move comes on the heels of marathon union meetings this past week in which members discussed possible strategies — including not showing up at school buildings and continuing with remote instruction — to oppose the city’s plan to return 45 percent of the teaching workforce to schools. The union’s members have not voted to authorize a strike, nor has leadership decided to pursue one, according to Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

Davis said she is organizing a vote this week to determine what, if any, actions union members want to take against what they feel would be an unsafe return to school buildings.

In dispute, arbitrator rules largely in favors D.C. Public Schools, clearing the way for schools to reopen on time.

“Our members have not taken a strike vote,” Davis said Monday. “The [Washington Teachers’ Union] is prepared to listen to what actions members want to take. However, the union is insisting that all 5,000 members have a vote to decide on this decision and not just a few.”

If a judge approves the restraining order request, and the union members defy it, union leaders could be held in contempt of court if the city decided to pursue those charges. City officials said a hearing could come as early as Tuesday morning and the restraining order would last for 14 days.

In the District, it is illegal for government employees to go on strike. The city’s collective bargaining contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union prevents the union “from encouraging or supporting strikes or similar work stoppages,” according to the filing for a temporary restraining order.

“Without this injunction, the District — and more importantly, its most vulnerable youth — will suffer profound and irreparable harm,” the request for the order reads. “Delaying safe, in-person learning with an illegal work stoppage will push students even further behind.”

In the filing, the city said that it received notice that the union planned to meet on Jan. 29 to discuss taking “mental health” leave until the teachers receive both ­doses of the vaccine in a month or until they believed the school system was in compliance with their reopening agreement.

The union has said the city breached its agreement on how to reopen schools, arguing that many buildings are still unsafe. But over the weekend, an arbitrator largely ruled in the city’s favor, saying that the union did not have sufficient evidence that buildings — including many HVAC systems — were faulty and unsafe. Two school buildings are unable to open Tuesday because the arbitrator found that the proper reopening protocol, which requires teachers and parents to participate in an extensive building walk through, was not followed.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee sent Davis three letters last week via email requesting that the union stop discussing the possibility of a strike or work stoppage, according to electronic documents obtained by The Washington Post.

The letters asked that Davis send notices to teachers informing them that any action like a strike — including a work stoppage, which would include teachers who are supposed to be teaching in-person staying remote — is unlawful.

On Friday, Davis responded to Ferebee that the union has not encouraged a strike and that sending any notice to her members would be premature.

In November, as the city planned to reopen schools, teachers staged a “sickout,” with 39 percent of teachers calling in sick for their remote learning assignments. The city filed a complaint with the labor board in response, but withdrew it in December after the two groups reached a deal on how to reopen schools that they had spent months negotiating.

Davis said she is encouraging teachers assigned to return to school buildings to report to work Tuesday, unless they have a legitimate reason. She said the union is reviewing cases of teachers who were assigned to return to school buildings but believe they are eligible for remote teaching.

If teachers take sick leave Tuesday they could argue they are simply taking paid leave. But if a large percentage of the roughly 1,800 teachers expected to return to classrooms Tuesday call in sick, the city could argue that it is a work stoppage.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said at her regular news conference Monday that she expects teachers to report to work Tuesday.

“We have over 9,000 kids and families who are counting on teachers to be at their assigned location for their job,” Bowser said. “I have to tell you that, just like anyone who is sitting here, when your boss tells you that this [is] where you need to be at work, that’s where you got to be.”  

The school system said Monday evening that it will be on a two-hour delay Tuesday.

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