Can the teachers’ revolt spread to charters?

October 31, 2018

Mike Shea reports on a strike authorization vote underway at schools in two Chicago charter networks — and what a walkout could mean for struggle for public education.

TEACHERS AT 19 charter schools in Chicago began casting votes at the end of October on whether or not to hold the first-ever strike at a charter school in the U.S.

On October 30, teachers and staff at 15 schools in the Acero charter network began voting, and teachers and staff at four Chicago International Charter School sites were scheduled to vote on November 2. Late Tuesday night, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) announced the results of the strike vote at Acero: 96 percent of union members turned out to vote, and 98 percent of those voting sanctioned a strike.

The potential strike could involve some 700 educators in two of the city’s 12 charter networks. The workers were represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), which merged last year with the CTU to become CTU-ACTS.

CTU-ACTS members in the Acero network have been working without a contract since their previous contract expired in August. Some of the main issues at stake are pay raises, class sizes and increased resources for special education.

Charter school teachers rally in Chicago
Charter school teachers rally in Chicago (CTU-ACTS | Facebook)

To build momentum for the strike authorization vote, dozens of charter teachers, support staff and their supporters rallied on October 24. Energy at the rally outside of Carlos Fuentes Elementary School in the city’s Avondale neighborhood was high.

UNION MEMBERS in the Acero charter network, formerly known as UNO, were angry and energized after a letter was sent to parents by Acero officials that demonized teachers as greedy, claiming that they rejected an offer to raise the average teacher salary by 5 percent.

CTU President Jesse Sharkey pointed out how distorted this message is in a recent op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times: “Charter operators in Chicago now receive 8 percent more funding per pupil than CPS schools, yet wages languish as low as 30 percent or more below the CPS scale.”

And as CTU-ACTS noted in a press release, Acero officials failed to note their own six-figure salaries:

The average salary for teachers at some charters is barely $47,000 — less than the average salary for Arizona teachers, who staged massive protests and walkouts against low education funding this year. With Chicago’s cost of living as much as 30 percent higher than states like West Virginia and Oklahoma — and with vastly higher housing costs — that puts educators’ wages well below teachers in the nation’s most militant and underfunded #RedForEd states...

The gridlock at Acero — formerly UNO — is particularly galling. Acero’s CEO earns a quarter of a million dollars a year to manage a system of about 8,000 students — as much as Rahm Emanuel’s handpicked CEO earns to manage a district of 370,000 students. The operator has jacked up management fees and expanded top administrative positions in what CTU members describe as naked bloat — while robbing students of those resources in classrooms.

Sharkey spoke at the October 24 rally, underlining the threat that for-profit charters pose to Chicago teachers and students.

“If charter schools are going to be a part of the educational environment and landscape going into the future, we have to safeguard our future,” he said as dozens of teachers marched with signs and chanted. “The demands charter educators are making are simple: Return resources to classrooms, fund student needs, give educators a long-deserved raise and provide parents and all Chicago residents with the transparency we deserve.”

THERE IS a special significance to the strike authorization vote and the state of negotiations between CTU-ACTS and Chicago charter school operators.

Not only could the vote set the stage for the first charter strike in U.S. history, but a walkout against charter operators also would affect the fight to protect public education from predatory charter operators and the increasing privatization of education in Chicago and elsewhere.

Currently, unionized charter teachers and staff are governed by a different set of labor laws than union members at public schools, since charter operators have successfully argued in court that they are private and not public employees.

But even if not technically considered public employees, charter teachers and staff have a huge impact on education in our communities. A strike could help shift the momentum against forces that support austerity toward a visible and increasingly active and organized defense of public education.

As for-profit entities, charter network operators both exploit teachers’ labor and cut corners on student services.

For example, Chicago charter operators received a significant boost in per pupil funding last fall, explicitly in order to offset redundant administrative costs. This funding boost means that charter schools operators receive more funding per student than traditional public neighborhood schools, yet students and underpaid teachers do not see this revenue.

Additionally, charter expansion in Chicago has created an “internal austerity” in the largest charter networks, with operators thinning resources at existing schools in order to expand to new neighborhoods and keep capturing new market share.

By merging into CTU-ACTS, the union is positioned to better protect charter teachers against exploitation and workplace abuse by uniting the struggles of educators and staff at private and public schools — while also fighting back against the overall drive toward charter expansion and pushing back against declining resources for public schools.

Rallying parents, students and community members — in addition to their union brothers and sisters at public schools — to support charter teachers and staff can also be a part of the larger fight to defend public education.

THE CTU’S development of rank-and-file leadership, community partnerships and field organizing aims to tip the scales of power away from some of the most influential people in the city — and toward those who depend on schools for work and the well-being of their children.

When CTU and ChiACTS merged last winter, it meant that charter- and public-school union members became part of a common union that could draw on the power of teacher solidarity. With 11 of the 12 unionized charter networks in Chicago having bargaining agreements to negotiate this fall, the aim of CTU-ACTS is to win better conditions for its members and students.

The general issues that unite CTU-ACTS members across various networks parallel those that unite CTU members, which the union discussed in the report “The Schools Chicago Students Deserve,” published in 2012, in the run-up to the CTU strike: wage increases, class size, staffing ratios and wrap-around services, as well as sanctuary schools, culturally relevant curriculum and restorative justice practices.

The common issues shared by rank-and-file teachers create the potential for a united struggle, but the process of uniting in struggle is only beginning, and is yet untested.

Part of building a movement in solidarity requires a clear understanding that charter school expansion has been a bitter process for many in Chicago. Many CTU members were forced to co-locate in the same school building with a new charter schools after watching their colleagues get laid off because of under-enrollment.

Charter expansion under Emanuel is closely associated with his 2013 school closings rampage that devastated poor Black and Latinx students, teachers and their communities. The University of Chicago Consortium on School Research released a study last April demonstrating the harm that the closing of dozens of public schools had on students and the community — with additional harm to those in the receiving schools compounding the impact.

At the same time that the unelected CPS Board of Education was considering the 2013 school closures, the board approved and signed an agreement with the Gates Foundation to open charter schools in “high-needs areas.” Many of those new charter schools were located within 1.5 miles of the 49 schools that were ultimately closed due to “low enrollment.”

CTU-ACTS HAS to meet a difficult challenge in contending with 12 different bosses across 12 different networks, each with a different contract that can be independently extended between 30 and 60 days.

Other subjective factors include a particular network’s hostility or tolerance of the union, the strength of the existing contract as well as the internal organization and organizing capacity of the existing membership.

To meet some of these challenges, CTU-ACTS has been holding delegate and school leader training sessions to help connect members with activists and organizers in school buildings across the city. CTU-ACTS also has formed a coordinating committee with bargaining team members from each of the 12 charter networks to engage in “pattern bargaining” — shaping common demands and similar language around common areas of concern.

Through pattern bargaining, CTU-ACTS will attempt to use gains won at one particular charter network as leverage to reproduce similar gains at other charter networks.

Establishing a pattern wage in Chicago’s charter school networks would be an enormous win for charter teachers, but also for traditional CTU members, whose jobs are threatened by declines in student population and revenues. If the district’s goal in expanding a charter network into a particular neighborhood is to undercut higher operating costs in CPS, higher wages for charter teachers can be a part of undermining that motivation.

While teachers' union members at public schools have an advantage of a century of struggle to achieve wage increases, some charter networks are making steps toward wage parity with CPS teachers. The high attrition rates and turnover among teaching staff in some networks creates instability that higher wages can mitigate.

In the other direction, charter teachers can demand the right to negotiate over items that are restricted for teachers in public schools by section 4.5 of the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act — like class size.

Once seen as competitors, charter and traditional public-school teachers and staff can organize together and around common interests for the benefit of all.

Before the 2012 CTU strike, teachers stood up and took an active part in the defense of public schools, and that translated into a commitment to strike. The same has been true of the teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Washington earlier this year — and possibly in Los Angeles later this fall.

With their threat to strike, some Chicago charter teachers and staff may become part of continuing the wave of teacher rebellions that began last winter in West Virginia.

It’s still unclear whether the first strike of unionized charter school teachers and staff will take place in Chicago in the coming weeks. But CTU-ACTS is presenting the most serious organized threat against individual charter network operators and their political patrons in City Hall and the statehouse.

Charter teachers and staff are showing that they are the ones best-suited to know and advocate for the shared interests they have as workers — and for the kids they teach every day.

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