Charter teachers stand tough in Chicago

February 11, 2019

Chicago is the site of a second charter school teachers’ strike in just a few months’ time. Joseph Sinclair reports from the picket line.

STRIKING TEACHERS at four unionized schools of the 14 run by Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) entered their second week on strike, braving rain, below-zero temperatures and harassment by both police and CICS administrators as they fight for a better educational environment and more equitable workplace.

The strike, which began February 5, is the third charter school strike in history, and the second one in Chicago after 500 members of Chicago Teachers Union-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (CTU-ACTS) successfully walked out against the Acero charter network in December.

Echoing demands that are familiar to anyone following the struggles of teachers across the country, the 140 CICS teachers and paraprofessionals have been fighting for smaller class sizes, more teaching resources, affordable health care and a living wage.

CICS administration claims they can’t afford to provide basic educational resources, but teachers on strike point to $36 million in so-called “reserve funds” that CICS is sitting on as a funding source that is more than adequate to cover costs.

Charter school teachers strike for the schools students deserve
Charter school teachers strike for the schools students deserve (Chicago Teachers Union | Facebook)

Even the number $36 million is a point of contention between educators and the board of directors. CICS claims that number is $18 million, but a closer look at its structure quickly removes any credibility from that and many other claims.

CICS has a labyrinthian internal structure comprised of shell companies and other formalities that are designed to discourage organization against management while obscuring the financial power of the company’s board.

Indeed, the company does have $18 million in reserve funds — but another $19 million is “invested” in co-founder Craig Henderson’s CW Henderson investment firm, offering a tidy profit generator for Henderson and his shareholders at the expense of children’s education and of the livelihood of those who teach them.

INITIALLY, MANAGEMENT said it was hiring a for-profit substitute teacher company to recruit scabs at pay rates higher than most full-time teachers earn. Until just before the strike, it looked like it would be possible for students to stay in school, which would have crippled the power of workers against the notoriously anti-union CICS.

But teachers had a different idea. “CICS had a contract with CST to hire subs, but we made so much noise!” said Candace Brown, a kindergarten teacher at CICS-Wrightwood. “ We threatened to picket them. We put them on the news for being scabs and crossing the picket lines, and they had to back out.”

Brown offered a warning of the long-term consequences for anyone thinking of crossing the picket line.

“What a lot of subs don’t realize that if they scab and cross the picket line, if they want to be a formal teacher, they’ll never be able to be in a union,” she said. “If you cross the picket line once, you can never be a teacher in a union school. You’ll have to work at a non-union charter, and they don’t make that much.”

Last Wednesday, as teachers were picketing at the South Side Wrighwood CICS campus, individual teachers met with the parents of their students as they pulled up. The teachers explained that there were no teachers or known aides in the building, and that a skeleton crew would be providing what amounted to childcare services, resulting in a potentially dangerous and understaffed situation.

They were allowing parents to decide if they wanted to leave their kids at school for the day or arrange for other plans.

At one point, seven police squad cars pulled up and surrounded picketers, claiming they were harassing and blocking parents from entering and exiting the drive, a falsehood.

According to multiple sources, after the situation was de-escalated by strike captains, CICS Building Engineer Larry Daniel came out of the school to boast that he had called the police “multiple times” to try to get picketers away from the school. But workers were doing nothing illegal.

“We never saw him around the building this year until the strike,” says Brown. “CICS said they didn’t send anybody to watch us, but they sent him and a few other people.”

Asked if this incident with police had an effect on strikers’ morale, Brown said, “Well, we kept talking to the parents, and we held the line.”

THE COMMUNITY is showing its solidarity, much as it did during the recent Acero strike.

At all the picket lines, drivers honk in support, and pedestrians wave, cheer, even start their own chants. Organizations have come out in force in solidarity, including the International Socialist Organization, which helped recreate the successful Tacos for Teachers campaign in LA. Over $1,500 was raised in 36 hours to help keep picket lines fed.

Students and parents have been overwhelmingly supportive. Despite the inconvenience, most recognize the common goal of creating a better learning environment that will improve the lives of all. Most notable of these supporters are the students, who continue to show up to school and join their teachers on the picket line.

At a rally in front of the CICS downtown administrative building on February 7, Hanza, a freshman at CICS Northtown Academy, came with a group of fellow students in a show of support. These students — whose presence on the picket lines reminded teachers of the stakes in this battle — spoke of abysmal learning conditions and the absurd priorities of the administration.

“I want to get back to school, and I want a better school,” Hanza said. “All our computers are broken. Keys aren’t working. You can’t even scroll down to find information on a website. And the whole time, CICS is sitting on $36 million. They’re bogus! They don’t care about us. It’s their job to give us an education, so they need to do it, or get out.”

Attitudes among administrative faculty and staff have been mixed, varying largely in line with how closely they work with faculty. “The principal has been amazing,” said Tiana Ashley, a seventh-grade reading teacher. “He’s been giving us coffee and doughnuts every day. The CEO and the board are the problem.”

Indeed, the CEO refused to enter into negotiations in the lead-up to the strike and didn’t enter into negotiations until late February 6, relying instead on a smear campaign, attempts to mitigate the strike’s effects and police intervention.

The morale among strikers remains high, and all eyes are on CICS. Until late last year, a charter strike was literally unprecedented, and charters seemed the uncontested victors in the battle to privatize and profit off of the public education system.

Since that time, Acero in Chicago claimed a decisive victory, followed shortly by The Accelerated Schools in Los Angeles. CICS is an invaluable addition to the charter strike wave, but it represents the most anti-union company yet to face a strike threat.

A win for teachers at the four unionized CICS schools could hint at broader openings within charter school unionization and reframe what was once thought possible in regards to workplace democracy in privatized sectors.

There are 10 other schools under the auspices of CICS that aren’t unionized, and the stark contrast in working conditions after a victory could greater emphasize the need to organize.

Teachers currently on the picket line are hoping that their companions hear and take notice so they can work toward a common goal as well. As Brown explained:

The administration tries to say it’s selfish, and we don’t have the best interest of the students at heart. But the administration only has the company and their profits at heart. Happy teachers make better classrooms. Smaller classes make better learning experiences. The administration has their best interest at heart, and we should represent the best interest of our students and our families.

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