Chicago Charter School Strike Deadline Looms

Originally published in The American Prospect on October 18, 2016.
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Unionized teachers and staff at UNO, a charter network comprising 16 elementary and high schools in Chicago, may go on strike Wednesday.

Many local news organizations have incorrectly claimed that a walkout by the unionized charter school teachers would be the first labor action of its kind. But as Jacobin first reported, teachers at a Philadelphia charter school staged a “sick-out” in 2011 when school administrators refused to bargain in good faith; the two sides ultimately reached a contract compromise. In 2014, the unionized teachers at the same Philadelphia charter voted to strike, but reached a contract deal with administrators before a walkout took place.

Nevertheless, a UNO strike would be significant development. UNO is one of the largest charter chains in the city, educating roughly 8,000 students. As more charter teachers opt to unionize across the country, more educators will likely begin engaging in traditional labor protests.

More than 95 percent of the 532 unionized UNO workers voted in favor of going on strike. The stickiest points of the charter union’s negotiations revolve around pension payments, class size caps, and salary increases. Their first-ever contract, negotiated in March 2014, has expired. Teachers and school administrators have been in contract talks for the past eight months.

“We aren’t going to strike just to make history,” says Erica Stewart, a fifth grade UNO teacher on the union bargaining team. “It’s just not feasible, or the right thing. If we need to walk off the job, it needs to be for the right reasons.”

While UNO administrators have said that they can’t afford to pay for all the teachers’ demands, the union members don’t believe them. Teachers point to things like UNO’s central offices located in downtown Chicago, which rent for more than $30,000 per month. They argue that their employer could be making very different budget choices.

Union leaders and school administrators plan to bargain all day Tuesday. If they fail to reach an agreement by midnight, then teachers will strike. UNO has already reached out to families to warn them that all school and extracurricular activities may be cancelled beginning Wednesday.

Stewart, who has taught at UNO for six years, says that the working conditions at her school were very challenging before the charter network formed a union in 2013.

“I was constantly afraid to ask for anything, I was afraid to leave my classroom if I needed a bathroom break,” she says. “I always felt I was going to get fired, and I took the job because I’ve got three kids at home to feed and I needed the work. I love teaching, and I love my students. It was just really difficult to work in a culture of fear like that.”

When I asked how parents and students have reacted to the possibility of a strike, Stewart says they’ve tried to keep bargaining politics out of the classroom and have organized informational meetings for parents, off-campus, after school hours. “The parents have been going out of their way to talk to us,” says Stewart. “They’re also trying to get their own voices heard within UNO.”

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