Chicago charter educators fought for justice and won

December 11, 2018

Joseph Sinclair reports on the victory for more than 500 charter school educators in Chicago after a six-day walkout against the Acero Schools network.

AFTER A historic six-day strike, charter school educators in Chicago won a major victory against the Acero Schools charter network. The union announced a contract agreement in the early morning hours of December 9.

The agreement covers the Acero teachers and other staff who are members of United Educators for Justice (UEJ), a division of the Chicago Teachers Union-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (CTU-ACTS).

The Acero educators went on strike on December 4, and their lively picket lines and rallies, despite freezing temperatures, brought back memories of the 2012 teachers’ strike against the Chicago Public Schools, which put education justice in the spotlight. Now the issue is center stage once more, thanks to the first charter school strike in U.S. history.

Among the reported gains in the contract are key demands of the UEJ: a reduction in class size from 32 to 30, beginning in the next school year; increases in salaries for teachers, bringing them closer to parity with public-school educators; and the designation of the 15 Acero schools as “sanctuary schools” to protect the 90 percent Latinx student population from immigration authorities. Support staff will also reportedly receive raises.

Acero charter school educators walk the picket line in Chicago
Acero charter school educators walk the picket line in Chicago

Although the deal still has to be ratified by UEJ members, an indoor rally that had been planned for December 9 to bolster the spirits of picketers was transformed into a “victory” rally.

The mood among educators in the room was electric. Decked out in their red union T-shirts, the energized crowd danced, sang and chanted — and were joined by parents, students and other supporters in celebration.

“Today, our students and our families have won — that’s the bottom line,” Andy Crooks, an Acero staffer and one of the bargaining unit’s lead negotiators, told the crowd that had filed into CTU headquarters.

Speakers at the front of the room praised the strike for achieving the strikers’ key demands on class size, wage parity and sanctuary status. Additionally, more than $1 million has been diverted from wasteful administrative and managerial costs to the classroom.

The agreement came on the heels of Acero management’s last-ditch attempt to break the strike by claiming in court that it violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Acero officials tried many tactics to derail the strike, including telling parents to bring their kids to schools — even though there were no educators nor instruction — after morning picketing by educators had ended. Despite the hardship of having to find other places for their kids, however, most parents kept their kids out of school.

SOLIDARITY WAS key to this strike victory — solidarity between UEJ educators and the community, including parents, students and other supporters, as well as solidarity between UEJ teachers and paraprofessionals and other support staff in the Acero schools.

At the rally, both speakers at the front and educators in the crowd spoke of a sense of solidarity and community that grew during the days on the picket line. Looking back on the picket lines, workers talked about how their chants grew stronger as the drummers’ skills developed and picketers created their own chants, inside jokes, songs and dances.

That translated to solidarity at the bargaining table. The union stood firm in its argument that not only should the number of charter school teachers increase, but so should the pay of paraprofessionals, including classroom assistants, special educators, teachers assistants and other aids.

When Acero initially offered a pay increase for teachers that was on par with public school teachers, but failed to address paraprofessionals, the bargaining team roundly rejected the offer. While teachers at charter schools earn 20 percent less on average than their public-school counterparts, paraprofessionals often make far less than teachers for doing challenging and often-overlooked work.

“Everybody thinks it’s an easy job, but it’s not,” said Gabriela Morales, a kindergarten paraprofessional. “I teach the students, I make my own lesson plans. I love the students, and I want to do the best I can, and I do, but it’s a hard job to get paid so little for.”

“I’m not just fighting for Garcia, for my school,” said Rachel Poracky-Weir, an Acero teacher and picket captain. “I’m fighting for every single person in this room. Honestly, I didn’t feel that way on first day of the strike, but after six days fighting together, I do.”

“I’m very proud of myself, but I’m even more proud of my colleagues who went on strike,” added Morales. “I’m proud of the people who went to the negotiating table every day and didn’t get much sleep. I’m proud of my strike caption who was out there every day supporting us, and making sure we were warm enough in the freezing weather.

“It was amazing seeing parents and other teachers coming out with coffee and doughnuts in support of us every day. It was inspiring, and I love it.”

The victory for UEJ strikers is also a product of the wave of teachers’ strikes and rebellions that swept the U.S. over the past year. As CTU-ACTS President Jesse Sharkey explained at a recent rally:

This strike represented the movement for fair pay, for resources into our classrooms that we saw sweep through West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma. The charter industry was premised on the idea that it could create a labor condition where workers wouldn’t be unionized, that they would work longer hours, that could bring young people in the profession. And that’s just not a good model to run a sustainable institution.

THIS VICTORY in the first-ever charter strike will have implications for charter educators across the country — just 11 percent of whom are unionized at the country’s estimated 7,000 charter schools.

As Chris Baehrend, head of CTU-ACTS’ charter division, said in an interview:

This is a milestone. This is the beginning of a wave of militant unionism in defense of our students in the charter sector, and this win right here has changed the way this terrible operator operates...

This agreement has taken a million dollars a year out of their administrative budget and we put that into the classroom for the frontline resources our students need. This is a win for educators around the country, whether they are in public schools or charter schools — for everyone who wants to defend our students against business interests that want to exploit our students and divert the resources they need for bright lives to line their pockets.

Within Chicago, there are 11 more charter operators still in negotiation for contracts.

On November 2, educators at the Chicago International Charter School (CICS) network, which has 14 campuses, four of which are unionized through CTU-ACTS, overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization.

The union remains in contract negotiations and no strike date has been set. But the UEJ educators’ successful walkout against Acero will put increased pressure on CICS by demonstrating that a victory against the charters is possible.

Acero management reportedly received many calls from other charter school operators across the country pleading with them to not settle — out of fear of the potential damage to industry. But the power of solidarity was too much for Acero.

From CEOs to paraprofessionals, the eyes of those in the charter industry are now on ACERO and the UEJ. According to Sharkey:

We have had an outpouring of nonunion charter teachers calling us and saying they want a union — telling us: “You’re making a difference. This is power. This is what our kids deserve.”

We received support from unionized charter workers from New York to Florida, to Los Angeles, where teachers are about to go on strike...New Orleans, Detroit, and Cleveland, too. And messages of solidarity from Canada, the UK, Mexico, Costa Rica and Ecuador.

Our fight is an international fight. We are teachers. We are fair people, and we know our kids deserve justice — that all people deserve justice and fairness, and that’s why private interests want to defang us. But we fight for justice and fairness. We fight for the working people, and I’m proud to be with you in this fight.

As striker Sarah Jones said in a quote circulated on social media:

There are no pictures or words that can capture this past week. I never imagined we’d have to fight so hard for something so right, or that anything would be more exhausting than teaching. We’ve had less sleep, worn more layers, gone through more hand and feet warmers, coffee and donuts than humanely possible. Some tears, but a whole lot of hugs and smiles, dancing, chanting, and an incredible amount of resilience.

We haven’t seen our students since Monday, but the silver lining is that each day we grow stronger and more united...This is all of our fight; an attack on teachers is an attack on everyone. We teach the future, and they deserve better.

“After this strike,” Gabriela Morales added, “I think anyone who wants to have a union should fight for it. Everybody at every school, every business, every job should have a union!”

Elizabeth Lalasz and Kirstin Roberts contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives