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Chicago Teachers Union to strike charter schools on May Day

By staff |
April 26, 2019
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IHSCA Teacher Jose Morales
IHSCA Teacher Jose Morales (Fight Back! News/staff)

Chicago, IL – Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) members at as many as ten more charter schools could be on the picket lines on May 1 - May Day - in what would be the third CTU strike against charter operators this school year.

This would be the first multi-employer charter strike in U.S. history.

CTU educators announced their strike date in a joint press conference, April 25, with City Colleges clerks and technical workers in AFT/IFT Local 1708, who have been without a contract for almost three years. Local 1708 workers will hit the picket lines the morning of May Day, International Workers’ Day, if no agreement is reached.

Charter educators at five schools will declare a strike on May Day, after the formal end of the school day, if they have not settled contracts with operators. And more charter schools could strike around that date, as well. CTU members at four Aspira schools voted overwhelmingly to strike this week.

"As teachers, our charge in society is to unlock the human potential of the next generation of our society and our youth, and we take that job very seriously," said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. "But we cannot do that job if there are no resources for our classrooms, no supports for our students, or no dignity for educators. If we have to strike to improve learning conditions for our students and wages and working conditions for our educators, we will be on the picket lines in a week."

City College workers share a common target with workers at two Instituto Progresso del Latino charter schools that could strike in May. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado ran Instituto from 2001 until he was appointed head of City Colleges two years ago by outgoing Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Yet despite Salgado's professed support for economic justice, City Colleges clerks work for poverty wages, just as Salgado and his chosen Instituto successors chronically low-ball wages for educators at their charter schools.

Charter operators across the city chronically steer public education dollars away from classroom needs into management salaries and non-education spending.

"For too long, charter operators have viewed public education dollars as a tool to enrich themselves, their bloated bureaucracies and their insider charter 'management' operations, while our students suffer the consequences in gutted resources, overcrowded classrooms and reduced supports," said CTU charter division chair Chris Baehrend. "That's got to end."

The five schools considering striking employ 134 CTU members who educate almost 1800 students. All five schools voted overwhelmingly to strike earlier this month, with 94% of union members voting, and 97% voting to strike if there is no progress at the bargaining table. That number could grow if the Aspira schools' 107 members strike. 93% of the Aspira educators who voted this week supported authorizing a strike.

"Management's bottom line is about lining their pockets, not supporting students," said Linda Zaia of Youth Connections Leadership Academy. "At the bargaining table, management has refused to address the need for student safety, restorative justice, special education services, counselors, therapists or any other student needs. Our management makes $3.4 million a year, while we have members making less than $40,000 a year. That's wrong."

CTU members are demanding contract language that guarantees federally mandated services for special education students; more support for English language learners and immigrant students; adequate staffing and resources for schools with serious shortages of both; and equal pay for equal work with Chicago Public School (CPS) colleagues, who teach the same students for better wages and working conditions.

Chronic under-resourcing, poor working conditions and low wages - which can be as little as 40% of what CPS pays comparable workers - drives high turnover and tremendous instability at charters. Working conditions can be so bad that staff churn can average 20% per year or more at some schools, undermining learning conditions and desperately needed support for students.

"We have an obligation to raise the question of what's right, not just for ourselves as workers, but for the entire working class in the city of Chicago, because that's who sends their kids to public schools," said Sharkey. "We're going to do what's right - we're going to demand resources for our schools, decent teaching and learning conditions in our classrooms, we're going to bargain hard - and if we can't get what's right at the bargaining table, we're going to take our fight for justice to the picket line."

ChiArts teachers are also battling to force the operator to contribute to their pension fund. School cofounder and wealthy investment banker Jim Mabie, who sits on both the ChiArts and Chicago Symphony Orchestra boards, opposes pension payments along with other ChiArts board members. Mabie is trying to eliminate the pensions of striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, as well.

Union charter workers are fighting to reform both the targeted operators and the larger charter industry. Operators across the nation, like these operators, have a long history of siphoning off public education dollars from academic programs and student supports to bankroll bloated bureaucracies, inflated executive salaries and exorbitant management fees.