Chicago’s Citywide Strike Just Spread to Charter School Teachers

Rebecca Burns October 23, 2019

Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets, stopping traffic and circling City Hall in a show support for the ongoing teachers strike on October 23, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)

More than 32,000 Chica­go Pub­lic School (CPS) teach­ers and staff — one out every 100 peo­ple in the city — have been on strike since Octo­ber 17. On Tues­day, the ranks of the strik­ing work­ers — rep­re­sent­ed by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) and SEIU Local 73 — swelled a lit­tle fur­ther as near­ly 40 teach­ers walked off the job at Pas­sages Char­ter School on the city’s north side.

This is the first time that dis­trict and char­ter teach­ers have struck simul­ta­ne­ous­ly in Chica­go, an occa­sion marked by high ener­gy and a rau­cous cho­rus of Sol­i­dar­i­ty For­ev­er” on the pick­et line. The city’s union­ized char­ter teach­ers all belong to CTU, which rep­re­sents 25,000 CPS teach­ers and sup­port staff, fol­low­ing a merg­er last year. Mem­bers of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants’ Mas­ter Exec­u­tive Coun­cil, which rep­re­sents Unit­ed Air­lines work­ers prepar­ing to nego­ti­ate a new con­tract, also joined the group.

We feel real­ly pow­er­ful today,” Kady Pagano, a pre-kinder­garten teacher at Pas­sages who is on the union’s nego­ti­at­ing team, told In These Times. This is Pagano’s first time on strike, after teach­ing last year at a non-union com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter. The dif­fer­ence is night and day,” she said.

It’s also the fourth time Chica­go char­ter teach­ers have struck in the last year, with the last strike against two sep­a­rate oper­a­tors lead­ing to wins on issues like class-size caps, and staffing and pay bumps for teach­ers and staff mak­ing well below their CPS equiv­a­lents. Since the city’s first char­ter school union­ized in 2009, Chica­go has been a hotbed for orga­niz­ing in the tra­di­tion­al­ly union-free indus­try. While ex-char­ter boss Juan Rangel boast­ed dur­ing the 2012 CTU strike that his schools were free from labor strife, the tables have turned dra­mat­i­cal­ly since then.

In the last year, sev­er­al char­ter school oper­a­tors have set­tled con­tracts at the eleventh-hour, as the union attempts to bring stan­dards up across the char­ter indus­try by bar­gain­ing 11 sep­a­rate con­tracts from a com­mon set of pro­pos­als.

Every oth­er oper­a­tor has met our demands so far,” says Chris Baehrend, pres­i­dent of CTU’s char­ter divi­sion. It shows that they’re not unrea­son­able or impos­si­ble, but we have to fight for them anyway.”

The demands echo those that the CTU is mak­ing in ongo­ing nego­ti­a­tions with the city’s school board: ade­quate staffing of nurs­es, coun­selors and social work­ers, as well as resources for spe­cial-edu­ca­tion stu­dents and Eng­lish lan­guage learners.

Pas­sages teach­ers say that’s espe­cial­ly impor­tant at their school, which has one of the high­est per­cent­ages of refugee stu­dents in Chica­go schools, includ­ing about 40 per­cent non-native Eng­lish speak­ers.

Many stu­dents are expe­ri­enc­ing post-trau­mat­ic stress or cul­ture shock, accord­ing to teach­ers, but the school only hired a full-time coun­selor this year. Pri­or to that, the posi­tion sat vacant for four years.

Kather­ine Mydra, the new coun­selor at Pas­sages this year, not­ed that there’s cur­rent­ly no guar­an­tee that the school will fill the posi­tion again next year — unless the union wins one in its contract.

Teach­ers also say they’ve had to fight tooth and nail for sanc­tu­ary” lan­guage guar­an­tee­ing that the school won’t work with Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE) — even though its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, Asian Human Ser­vices (AHS), is a non-prof­it that empha­sizes its exper­tise in the chal­lenges fac­ing refugees, immi­grants and oth­er under­served communities.”

AHS did not respond imme­di­ate­ly to a request for com­ment. In a state­ment addressed to par­ents and post­ed on its web­site, the orga­ni­za­tion described the nego­ti­a­tions as pri­mar­i­ly relat­ed to com­pen­sa­tion” and said, We hope these mat­ters will be resolved in a way that is sat­is­fac­to­ry to all Pas­sages employ­ees and pro­tects the finan­cial sta­bil­i­ty of the school and its abil­i­ty to serve its students.”

The union says it is seek­ing full infor­ma­tion on AHS’ finances, but the group’s 990 fil­ings show that CEO Craig Maki draws a $250,000 salary. Pas­sages teach­ers make as lit­tle as $35,000 annually.

Mydra said that going on strike feels con­sis­tent” with what she does as a school coun­selor. I teach my stu­dents to advo­cates for them­selves and oth­ers,” she said. That’s what we’re doing right now.” 

Rebec­ca Burns is an award-win­ning inves­tiga­tive reporter whose work has appeared in The Baf­fler, the Chica­go Read­er, The Inter­cept and oth­er out­lets. She is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rejburns.
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