In 2018, Cook County School District No. 130 illegally fired custodian Susan Gracie for filing a grievance that challenged the filling of a vacant, bargaining unit position with the son of the school board’s vice president. That same day, Local 73 filed an unfair labor practice charge against the School District with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. On June 30, 2021, the First District Appellate Court unanimously affirmed the findings of the Board, which found that the School District illegally fired Gracie. The Board also found the school district violated the law by refusing to arbitrate the grievance over Gracie’s termination.
“This was a significant victory especially considering the Court unanimously rejected all seven of the school district’s exceptions to the Board’s findings,” said Dian Palmer, President of Local 73.
“From filing a grievance, to the labor board and to appellate court, SEIU Local 73’s members, representatives, and attorneys stood by me every step of the way after the school district fired me – and I won. I’m proud to support the union because the union supports me,” said Susan Gracie.
Gracie had worked as a custodian for the School District for about twenty years and had no prior disciplinary record. She was also a member of the union’s bargaining committee and a union steward. As a steward, Gracie had filed a grievance on behalf of a Custodian II, George Frederick. The grievance alleged that the School District violated the collective bargaining agreement by neither interviewing him for a potential promotion to Custodian I nor notifying him that a vacancy in that position existed. Rather than promoting Frederick from among the in-house ranks, the Board of Education hired the son of its own vice president for the position.
At Nathan Hale School, Gracie regularly purchased air fresheners with her own funds to be used in kindergarten and special education classrooms bathrooms. Gracie was reported for using plastic bags from the teacher’s supply cabinet for the air fresheners, even though she paid for replacement bags. The teacher, who no longer worked for the School District at the time of the Labor Board hearing, testified that, had she known that reporting Gracie would result in her termination, she never would have reported Gracie to the principal. The principal forwarded the e-mail to the School District superintendent, Dr. Colleen McKay, and to John Dudzik, the assistant director of human resources. The superintendent ordered Dudzik to conduct an investigation, and she put Gracie on paid leave pending the result of the investigation.
Dudzik interviewed Gracie and submitted a report to Dr. McKay, recommending that Gracie be terminated. McKay told Gracie in writing that her taking the plastic bags was “theft in the school setting,” which was “an extreme breach of trust.” The Board of Education of the School District voted to terminate Gracie’s employment, and it notified Gracie accordingly.
The judge rejected the School District’s defense that Gracie’s termination was justified as a punishment for “theft” of the plastic bags, finding the defense to be pretextual. The judge determined that the School District “expressed hostility towards unionization” and there was evidence of disparate treatment and pretext because another custodian had allegedly committed theft but was not discharged.
The administrative law judge also found that the School District committed an unfair labor practice when it refused to arbitrate Gracie’s grievance, and the Board and Court agreed.
The Court called for the Board’s orders to be enforced. The Board ordered the School District to offer Gracie reinstatement with full restoration of backpay and benefits with 7% interest, to expunge the termination from her personnel file, and to post notice of employee rights for 60 days within the school.