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    The Other Chicago Teachers' Strike

    • Vol. 2
    • Iss. 9

    As the countdown to the Chicago Teachers Union’s October 11 strike deadline approaches, another teachers’ union in Chicago has voted to authorize a strike as their own contract negotiations have dragged on over strikingly similar disagreements.

    The teachers and staff at the fifteen-campus UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) have spent seven months bargaining for a successor to their groundbreaking first collective bargaining agreement. But talks with management have stalled. So this week, all but one of the 533 bargaining unit members participated in the strike vote, which delivered a 96 percent vote in favor of strike authorization.

    The teachers want to limit class size, reverse layoffs of student support personnel, and win more say over the school-year calendar. USCN executives want to shift more pension and health-care costs onto the workers, consolidate the pay schedule, and limit support staff to a 1 percent raise.

    “We sympathize with the CTU, we support the CTU,” says Erica Stewart, a spokesperson for the workers. “But this is our contract, and we’ve been bargaining on a separate track than the district.”

    Yet UNO’s management’s giveback demands look a lot like what Chicago Public Schools is demanding of the CTU.

    While there are many — particularly in corporate education reform circles — who see charter schools as non-union alternatives to school districts, the reality is that teachers at charter schools do not serve as a reserve pool of strikebreakers.

    In Chicago, nearly a quarter of charter school teachers have voted their way into the union. The UCSN workers were the largest group of employees to organize when they joined the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) in 2013. Chicago ACTS is Local 4343 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the CTU’s sister local.

    Having directed the AFT’s charter school organizing program from 2010 until 2015, I may be a bit biased. But union organizing in charter schools is a story of union solidarity that too often goes overlooked. Teachers choose to work in charter schools for a variety of reasons, but union avoidance is rarely one of them. And, while union activists have a lot of problems with the role that the charter industry plays in the privatization of education, workers in charters who stand up for their rights deserve support from the Left.

    Too Big to Fail

    That the UCSN faces a possible strike at the same time CPS prepares for a walkout would have been unbelievable in 2012, the time of the last major CTU strike. Then, CEO Juan Rangel crowed about the fifty thousand students who would continue to report to charter schools while the public schools were shuttered.

    Rangel’s pre-strike provocation inspired Chicago ACTS to organize UCSN teachers. The CTU joined the effort and contributed significant staff resources and leadership attention to the project.

    This was a huge challenge. UCSN was the largest network of charter schools in Chicago at the time, with ambitions to expand to new markets. It was a driving force in the industry lobby, the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, and Rangel had served as transition chief for Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first one hundred days. Up to that point, Chicago ACTS had organized mostly small networks and independent schools.

    Given the high degree of teacher turnover and the rapid expansion of the network, we knew we needed to pressure management to sign an organizing rights deal — an agreement not to fight our organizing efforts — if we were going to win a union for the teachers and staff.

    Campaign researchers soon discovered that the same rapid expansion that made the network hard to organize was UNO’s financial Achilles heel. Virtually every year, the network had to float a new bond to Wall Street investors, each time using the newest school property — purchased with the last bond — as collateral for the new one. This meant that any increase in the charter’s network’s revenue went to service debt. Any pause in new growth or revenue would put immediate pressure on their bottom line.

    In essence, a charter school is just a five-year contract to provide government services. So when charters apply for fifteen- or thirty-year bonds, they are charged extremely high interest rates. Across the board, charter school bonds are only rated one grade above “junk.” But Wall Street investors love them, because they are also classified as municipal bonds, which produce triple-tax-free income for investors. Banks carefully bundle these with safer bonds from actual public entities to produce higher yield, but supposedly safe, bond funds.

    If all of this is starting to sound like The Big Short, that’s because the bankers who inflated and then popped the sub-prime mortgage bubble are repeating the same scam in the charter school industry. This should be a national scandal.

    But the actual UNO scandal was a result of the organization’s culture of insider dealing and no-bid contracts. Ordinarily, that’s business as usual in Chicago. But in the aftermath of Rahm Emanuel’s controversial closure of fifty public schools, the question of how public education dollars were spent became highly politicized.

    When Chicago Sun-Times investigative reporter Dan Mihalopoulos launched a series of UNO exposés in early 2013, the public was outraged by the cavalier and venal misuse of public funds. As Mihalopoulos began to connect the scandal to specific politicians, UNO started losing friends fast.

    The day the Sun-Times ran a story on UNO’s fundraising for House speaker Mike Madigan — complete with an embarrassing picture of Madigan at an UNO charity golf event — two things happened: first, the governor set in motion the suspension of a special $98 million grant that was supposed to seed the network’s expansion, and leadership called AFT president Randi Weingarten to propose a neutrality agreement.

    Thanks to that deal, the worker-led organizing committee signed up over 90 percent of the teachers and staff for a May Day union certification.

    Read the full article at Jacobin
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