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Lessons from a Chicago Charter Teachers Strike

Written by Elizabeth Shaw, the CEO of Chicago International Charter Schools

Dear friends and colleagues,

I imagine that you have all been following the wave of teachers strikes across the country, including nearly two weeks of picketing at four Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) that I oversee. It’s been two weeks since more than 2,000 CICS students went back to school following the strike. In the aftermath of the strike, I am reflecting, repairing and processing the lessons.

The contract that concluded our strike was a huge win for teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took a victory lap when they signed the tentative agreement. “We have finally won a contract that our schools, our students, and our staff deserve,” proclaimed a CTU spokesperson after an agreement was reached. Teachers will receive an average 31 percent salary increase over the four-year life of the contract, paraprofessional salary will immediately be brought to parity with CPS and those schools will have a maximum class size of 28 students, among other provisions. Educators deserve more compensation and better working conditions, and CICS supports these changes in our schools.

The untold part of this story is that the same contract that CTU claims it “won” was on the table before the strike even began. Leadership offered it. CTU leaders rejected it. Then, after nine days of public demonstrations, they triumphantly accepted it. This was a big win for educators, but a strike and nine days of lost learning time wasn’t necessary to get it.

I wish I could say I was surprised, but it was clear that this strike was never really about the terms of the contract. It was a show of political force in a town where CTU often controls elections and at a time when the very existence of unions is being threatened, locally and nationally.

What CICS experienced in the months leading up to and during the negotiations have implications that extend far beyond our schools or even our city. I want to share what we learned in the hope that it will shine light for other education leaders as we navigate the developing relationship between teachers unions and charter schools.

1. Charter negotiations and strikes have different stakes. Even where funding parity exists between charter and district schools, charter schools cannot afford to accept the deals that big districts can. They must live within their means. Big districts like LAUSD can settle a strike by agreeing to a contract that puts them $840M in the hole because they are simply too big to fail and the city or the state will help. Charter schools, including the network of 14 schools that I run, do not have this luxury. If we had caved to CTU’s salary demand of 41 percent salary increases for teachers, we would have become insolvent in three years and been forced to close our doors for all 8,300 students. There would be no bailout. Charters simply have to live within their means and this is a new paradigm for teachers unions to navigate.

2. Charter strikes have different levers. Charter schools operate outside of the traditional district’s political context. Rather than being governed by elected or appointed officials, charters are governed by a voluntary board of directors who may not have the political acumen or desire to be the public faces of a teachers strike. CTU tried to exert tremendous pressure on our leadership and on CICS’ board members, even staging a sit-in at our board chair’s downtown office building and canvassing her neighborhood. We refused to cave to the tried and true political levers, and perhaps that is why the strike was protracted. While I’m grateful for the steadfastness of our board and their ultimate trust in my leadership, that may not be the case with every charter that is the target of union action. Unions will continue to put pressure on individuals – boards and leadership alike – in an attempt to drive a wedge and get their demands met. We can anticipate that the union playbook will evolve as they search for key levers in the charter context.

3. The relationship between the charter sector and unions needs to change. After years of vehement opposition to the very existence of charter schools, teachers unions are now changing course and organizing charters to increase their membership. What does it mean for the relationship between unions and charter management when unions have spent more than two decades fighting in active opposition to the charter sector? Randi Weingarten, president of AFT has suggested, the best results for children come from a collaborative relationship between management and labor. While unions are anything but collaborative when it comes to charter schools, national and statewide charter organizations have insisted on neutrality. True neutrality might be a solution, but only if is bilateral. The current paradigm of one-sided neutrality from our statewide and national membership organizations hurts our students and our schools. The charter community must either forge a commitment to neutrality between unions and charters that is respected on both sides, or fight back when the unions engage in tactics that threaten to destroy schools.

4. These strikes are a call to action.#RedforEd is building momentum, and not just at traditional schools. Yet the actions we observed were far outside of the basic values we try to impart: civility, respect, kindness, truth. What we experienced was a lack of good faith at the bargaining table and a dearth of civility on the picket lines. Our organizational leadership experienced a barrage of identity-based and truth-absent personal attacks. CTU’s rhetoric was racist, anti-semitic and gendered. Union agitators shouted at students (some food and housing insecure) and parents trying to get to school during the strike. Yet the #RedforEd movement speaks to many educators, including charter educators and aligns to many of the values we all work for: social and racial justice, equity, civil rights. These unionized teachers are talented, passionate, principled, and fierce advocates for kids. And yet, we have arrived at a point where teachers feel like the best way to make change is a strike. This should prompt deep reflection in our sector.

5. It is just the beginning. CTU has threatened seven more charter strikes between now and the end of the school year. We know that they are using the CICS strike to mobilize and organize at other charter schools in the city, and eventually around the country. At districts, we are seeing a strike per week. Many of the highest performing charter networks have built cultures that will withstand the pressure. But this is still a sector-wide issue and we simply can’t bury our heads and hope this goes away. Whether your priority is a commitment to one particular model or network, ensuring that charters remain a catalytic force for system-wide innovation, that charters maintain market share to pressure traditional districts, or expansion of quality seats and closure of failing seats regardless of governance model, these first charter strikes are an inflection point. Education leaders will need to figure out a way to reconnect with educators and the public, and co-exist with unions while not compromising our models and missions. This may mean finding ways to increase salaries sector-wide. It may mean evolving charter governance structures to more closely represent the communities we serve. In this time of increased polarization nationally, we have some critical changes to make, not just as individual organizations but as a sector.

What does this mean for the future of our schools? Are teachers unions able to represent the best interest of the teachers in our schools if they also represent a position that is fundamentally anti-charter? Or does the move to organize charters indicate a softening in the national position and an opportunity to find a new ally of school choice in an organization that has long been the charter movement’s greatest detractor? What should we be learning? How should we be evolving?

The optimist in me wants to imagine a world where labor and management work together productively. The executive in me who has just experienced two weeks with 2,000 kids out of school, and full of destructive rhetoric and actions as CTU came for our schools, our funding and our reputation is skeptical. But either way, the education community broadly, and charter sector specifically, must determine whether we work harder to fight off unions or look for new ways to partner with and reform them.

Thank you for the support and solidarity from friends and colleagues across the city and nationally during this challenging time for our school communities. I believe that the education leaders in Chicago and nationally can learn from these early days of charter strikes, but we have to be willing to tackle tough questions and be ready to change. I look forward to continuing to dialogue with you about the challenges facing our school systems.

Onward and Upward,