On the picket line against the charter bosses

December 6, 2018

Nicole Colson reports on the mood on the picket line two days into the historic strike of educators at Chicago’s Acero charter school network.

“MONEY FOR schools, money for books! No more money for corporate crooks!”

That chant was one of many that rang out this week on the picket line outside of Carlos Fuentes Elementary School in Chicago’s Avondale neighborhood as educators in the Acero (formerly known as “UNO”) network of charter schools went on strike December 4.

The historic strike — the first against a charter operator in the U.S. — involves some 500 members of United Educators for Justice (UEJ), a division of the Chicago Teachers Union-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (CTU-ACTS), at 15 school sites in the city.

With just 11 percent of charter educators unionized nationally, the implications for the strike — in an industry where the watchword is bringing the “free market” in and keeping the unions out, in order to offer a supposed alternative model to public education — are major.

Striking teachers on the picket line at an Acero charter school in Chicago
Striking teachers on the picket line at an Acero charter school in Chicago (Elizabeth Lalasz | SW)

Among other things, UEJ educators are fighting for better compensation, a shorter school day and smaller class sizes — issues familiar to the public school teachers across the country who have walked off the job over the past year to fight for what they deserve.

As he picketed Acero’s headquarters during an afternoon rally on December 4, Andy Crooks, a UEJ member and one of the bargaining unit’s negotiators, told the Chicago Tribune that the UEJ educators and staff have a fundamental ethical difference with Acero management about what matters in education.

“It’s a philosophical difference,” he explained. “What we are arguing is that we have students in our classrooms, and what Acero is telling us is that those students are dollar signs. And they need the dollars, and we need the time with our students.”

ACERO WAS forced to cancel classes, extracurricular activities and athletics as the strike began, and “encouraged” parents to keep kids at home or find other places for them during the day — though some school buildings were being kept open and parents were allowed to drop kids off to be supervised by non-union staff.

Acero claims it cannot afford the demands of UEJ educators, but they could look at the salary of CEO Richard Rodriguez for a start. Rodriguez’s pay clocks in at a whopping $260,000 a year — more than the salary of the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, who oversees 43 times the number of students as Rodriguez, and 33 times the number of schools.

For his part, Rodriguez — in a statement calculated to demonize CTU-ACTS and public school educators and advocates in general — blamed the strike on “outside interests.”

“There is absolutely no good reason to put students and parents through the upheaval of a strike,” Rodriguez said. “The sad fact is that interests from outside our community are using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national anti-charter platform.”

But while Acero, formerly known as “UNO,” is technically not-for-profit, the expansion of it and other charter schools in the Chicago area — during a period of years when more than 50 public schools have been closed down — has diverted needed public money, school sites and other resources away from public education.

Far from seeing charter educators and their interests as separate from, or counterposed to, the struggle of public-school educators, the union made a conscious decision to embrace all teachers, and it has worked for years to organize charter schools.

CTU-ACTS sees the fight for charter educators as a crucial element of the struggle to improve the wages, benefits and working conditions for all Chicago teachers — as well as the learning conditions of all Chicago students.

No educator should be forced, as Acero educators are, to work “hundreds of additional hours per year compared to educators in CPS-run district schools, while charter operators collect 8 percent more per student in funding than CPS schools,” as CTU-ACTS pointed out.

And meanwhile, Acero educators receive thousands of dollars less in wages each year compared to their public-school counterparts.

As the UEJ said in a public statement on the evening of December 4, a show of strength and solidarity on the picket lines is key to forcing Acero management to the bargaining table:

We will continue to shut down Acero schools and be on the picket line...Continue to show up and show out. It’s making a huge difference.

Today, it was obvious at the bargaining table that Acero is feeling the pressure from our members, our parents, the press and the greater community. Our struggle and our message dominated the airwaves and the news streams today. We even had a great trending run on Twitter! Management knows that the world is watching our historic movement. And we got coverage in the national press from outlets that ranged from the Washington Post to the New York Times.

The stronger and more united we stand, the stronger our final settlement will be.

At an afternoon rally at UNO/Acero headquarters, strikers and their supporters carried signs that called out Acero for “Starving Our Schools — Feeding the Rich (Rodriguez)!” As a social media post from CTU-ACTS about the rally noted: “The bosses don’t like us, but they will respect us.”

THAT FIGHT — to demand basic respect on the job — is motivating striking educators. But it isn’t only for themselves that they are fighting.

Echoing the rally cry of the 2012 CTU strike that shut down Chicago Public Schools — “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” — UEJ members have made demands for their students a key component of the strike. That includes a demand that Acero recognize “sanctuary schools” and implement culturally relevant curriculum for Acero’s 90 percent Latinx student body. (The demand for sanctuary schools has reportedly been a sticking point at the bargaining table.)

The lively mood on the picket line at Carlos Fuentes Elementary School reflected these struggles, as picketers chanted in English and Spanish. Addressing Acero CEO Rodriguez, they declared, “Rodriguez! Escucha! Estamos en la lucha!”

Several community members honked their horns as they drove by, and while some parents came to drop off their kids to go inside, they were supportive of the teachers and understood that there would be no instruction that day.

Some of the picketers outside Fuentes were familiar with striking — having been part of the historic 2012 CTU strike. One Fuentes teacher said that having the UEJ be part of CTU-ACTS had helped in terms of having the knowledge and experience of people who have been on strike before.

Rosanna Rodriguez, a candidate for City Council in the 33rd Ward, walked the picket line with campaign staff. As a teacher in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez noted that she had been on strike multiple times. City Councilmember Deb Mell also showed up and talked to strikers, but didn’t join the walking picket.

Sarah, a teacher at Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Elementary School in Rogers Park, explained her feelings as she walked the picket line the first day:

We’ve got a great turnout. This is our entire staff, and there are extra people here supporting us. We’ve had people from other schools drop in before their school day started and join our picket line, and that’s been fantastic. We’ve been getting a lot of support from people driving by, which has been really encouraging as well.

Honestly, we’re taking it one day at a time...We want to be in our classrooms, getting our kids ready for finals, and my kids have a show in two weeks. But we’ll be out here tomorrow morning, too, if they don’t resolve.

The 50 or so striking educators at Cruz were bolstered by community activists and CTU-ACTSmembers, who encouraged their union brothers and sisters to stand strong before leaving to teach at CPS schools.

Union activists handed out leaflets explaining the strike to the few parents who attempted to drop their kids off at school. Only one parent brought their child into school, which was being staffed by an administrator, and one nurse and two paraprofessionals brought in to scab.

But that one was outnumbered by the students who came with their parents to walk the picket line in support of their striking teachers.

At Santiago Elementary, the lively picket line was energized by the fact that no one had crossed the line — and that only two kids had been brought to school.

As picketers circled in front of the main entrance to the school, they chanted, “Better schools are a right, that is why we have to fight” and “What do we want? Fair contract. When do we want it? Now!” One of the most popular chants was, “Protect our students, sanctuary schools!”

As at other Acero locations, this is the first time most of these educators have been on strike. One special education educator explained: “This is my first job, I just moved here to Chicago. You have no idea how little the paraprofessionals make. It’s unbelievable.”

Another paraprofessional and UEJ member who works in the school office explained they have only received a 30-cent raise over the last three years.

AT THE afternoon rally in front of Acero’s headquarters, another demonstration of the power of UEJ educators and their supporters unfolded with a line of marchers that stretched across Jackson Avenue, half a block down either side of the street and around the corner.

Laura, who was on her first strike, explained what drove her to take action:

My biggest goal is class sizes. Right now, we have 32 kids in each class. When we were fighting them last time, they offered to raise our pay if we had over 30 people, but money isn’t the point. You can’t teach 30 kids in one room.

Right now, I think CPS has 28 kids [per class], so that’s what we’re aiming for. The hope now is to let kids cycle out and lower class sizes that way...

We also hope there will be a cutoff when students can join, so when one kid moves at the end of April, there isn’t another in their place the next day. You can’t teach a kid with two weeks of school left, but they don’t care. All they see when they look at kids is dollar signs.

Elizabeth Lalasz, Laura Snedeker and Aaron Verbrigghe contributed to this article.

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