EPIC management’s dangerous demand for in-person elections at school whose community is ravaged by COVID-19 cases mirrors other charter operators’ misdeeds.
CHICAGO, April 22, 2020—Workers at EPIC charter school have been organizing to unionize for months. An overwhelming majority have declared their support for a union and signed union cards. EPIC management could recognize the union today, but instead has been campaigning against the union during this school closure through one-on-one phone calls from administration and virtual anti-union meetings. Their latest stunt is a demand that educators hold a formal election vote for the union – in person, in the school, during a global health pandemic.
“Management’s insistence not just for an election, but for an in-person election, puts educators at direct risk of contracting a deadly disease,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “We’re used to charter operators abusing their workers, neglecting student needs and mismanaging their funds, but it’s truly appalling that a charter operator is demanding that workers risk their very lives simply for the right to join a union and improve their school.”
Epic workers went public with their effort to unionize and join the CTU in March. Workers are seeking contractually guaranteed protections for diverse learners – special education students – who are routinely denied services they are mandated to receive under federal law. Workers are also seeking contractual guarantees for adequate resources to support students’ academic, social and emotional growth; more fair evaluation criteria; rights and protections for educators who challenge management’s lack of accountability and distorted work rules; and, critically, the hiring of a team of full-time guidance counselors, social workers and a full-time nurse, all resources the school currently lacks.
94 percent of EPIC’s overwhelmingly low-income students qualify for free and reduced school lunches. The school’s special education department alone has seen staff turnover of 75 percent in the last year – high even for the charter industry, where chronically under-resourced classrooms and poor working conditions often drive turnover of 50% or more. The acute level of staffing churn undercuts school stability and derails students’ ability to build durable, nurturing relationships with educators and support staff.
The educators’ case has landed at the National Labor Relations Board, where EPIC’s lawyers argued today that their employees should have to come into school to vote in-person on May 13, claiming that a cafeteria is a safe environment for over 40 employees to congregate to vote. Their ‘rationale’ to the NLRB: EPIC believes these election conditions are safe since workers are required to notify the school if they test positive, and there have been no known positive tests, even as Illinois continues to struggle to provide access to testing to the public.
Multiple EPIC workers have experienced potential COVID-19 symptoms – but had no access to coronavirus testing. While management claims that an in-person election would encourage more participation than a mail-in ballot, educators argue that the move is designed to suppress turnout, ala the election fiasco in this year’s Wisconsin primary, where Milwaukee residents were forced to vote in person at only a handful of polling places, creating hours-long lines and undercutting shelter-at-home safety practices for those who sought to vote. Illinois schools have already been ordered closed for the rest of the school year as a safety measure.
“Many of us have underlying health conditions, care for children and elderly family members, live with at-risk students, and take public transportation to the school,” said EPIC teacher Martha Rubin, who has asthma and is considered at higher risk for COVID-19. “We came together at EPIC to unionize because our calls to address student needs have gone unanswered for years. Our students deserve better. Management’s response has been to throw every hurdle imaginable in our path. But I never thought they’d go this low. “It’s crazy that my colleagues and I would have to choose between possibly infecting ourselves and our loved ones in order to exercise our rights as employees under the NLRA. I’m horrified that management is literally willing to force us to put our safety on the line simply to get them to invest in our students’ needs.”
EPIC is not the only charter operator undercutting their workers and student needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Illinois Board of Education has required school districts to bargain with their unions and come to agreement on modified work rules during the pandemic. Chicago International Charter Schools – CICS, which forced workers out on strike for two bitterly cold weeks in the winter of 2019 – has ignored that mandate at its union schools. The charter operator was blasted during the strike for hoarding tens of millions of public dollars and bankrolling a bloated management structure run by a series of profit-taking shell companies. Unionized workers at CICS are considering next steps in that dispute.