Retaliation Against Charter School Teachers for Joining a Union?

Urban Prep, the Chicago charter schools for boys, just fired 17 teachers who had been active leaders in an effort by teachers at Urban Prep’s charter schools to join a union—the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, known as Chicago ACTS or ChiACTS.  The teachers, students at Urban Prep schools and their parents, and members of the clergy in Chicago have been actively protesting the school’s alleged retaliation for a vote by a majority of teachers at Urban Prep schools to be represented by a union.

According to In These Times, “On June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall.  The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.”

Catalyst Chicago interviewed Matthias Muschal, recently terminated as an English teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville campus: “Muschal says he was told his dismissal was due to insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration.  But he believes the real motive was his active participation in union organizing—Muschal, a six-year veteran at Urban Prep was one of two teachers from the charter network who spoke out in favor of a union drive at a press conference in City Hall in February.”

Catalyst confirms that, “ChiACTS has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the firings at Urban Prep…”   The Chicago Sun Times explains: “A majority of teachers earlier this month voted in favor of being represented by a union.  Although there is not yet a contract, the teachers are being represented by the charter school union, which is asking the Urban Prep board to accept the results and enter into a contract.”  The fired teachers are some of the Urban Prep teachers with the longest tenure—six or eight years—and parents have protested that by firing experienced teachers, the school is denying their sons the stability they desperately need.

Progress Illinois, a publication of the Service Employees International Union, addresses some of the legal issues in the recent firings, quoting Brian Harris, president of Chicago ACTS Local 4343: “On June 3, when 60 percent of the teachers at Urban Prep voted to form a union, they created a situation where the employer legally cannot make significant changes to working conditions without consulting with the union, without negotiating.  Certainly, firing 15 percent of their staff is a significant change in working conditions.  This is the law.  They cannot do that.  And they certainly cannot do it to punish people for forming a union.”

Representatives of Arise Chicago, an organization of Chicago clergy, protested with the fired teachers last week.  The Rev. John Thomas, a board member of Arise Chicago and the former President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, spoke at the protest: “As a publicly-funded charter school, Urban Prep has a responsibility to explain to the people of Chicago why we should not assume that this is simply an act of intimidation and retaliation.” Clergy from Arise Chicago delivered to the chair of Urban Prep’s board a letter, signed by 40 religious leaders, demanding a meeting.

In the summer issue of The American Prospect, featuring an article on efforts of charter school teachers across the country to unionize, reporter Rachel Cohen interviews the operator of another group of charter schools in Chicago, this time in the Pilsen neighborhood.  Juan Salgado believes having his teachers represented by a union has been, so far, beneficial in every way for his schools: “I sat down with Juan Salgado, the president and CEO of Instituto Del Progreso Latino, a nonprofit educational organization in Pilsen, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Chicago, to learn what it’s been like for him to oversee two charters that have unionized with AFT (the American Federation of Teachers). Salgado believes that unions have been tremendous assets for his schools, particularly around some of the more fraught questions of wages and benefits. Can such issues be resolved ‘without a union?’ he asks.  ‘Yeah. But can we move forward to actually run a school? Probably not.’  The mutual buy-in at the end of the negotiating process, Salgado said, created a better spirit at his schools… ‘Unions ask a lot of questions! And that’s OK,’ he says.  ‘Critical questioning causes reflection and makes sure you have very good answers.  And they demand transparency, and transparency is important.  It’s a value that we should all have.'”

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