Stagnant wages, lack of job security or basic rights fuel push by artists – from voice teachers to video instructors – to join union with full-time educators.
CHICAGO, April 20, 2022 — Since full-time teachers and paraprofessionals at ChiArts – the Chicago High School for the Arts – unionized with the CTU in 2018, educators have seen poor wages and working conditions improve, school staff stabilize and educators given a voice at the table.
Now the school’s main office staff and teaching artists – from the voice teachers to the visual arts instructors, all of whom are technically not full-time workers – are seeking to gain the same basic rights and valued voice as union teachers and support staff.
“I’m a part of the unionizing efforts because I want teaching artists to be represented at the decision-making table,” said teaching artist Bessana Kendig. ”Being a teaching artist is already a hustle without being excluded from decisions that affect our safety and our livelihood. We dedicate our time and artistic energy entirely to our students, and it’s time we get to share our input and collaborate for the benefit of the entire school culture and community.”
ChiArts is a CPS ‘contract’ school. Like charter schools, it is funded by CPS along with private donations, and admits public school students into its intensive visual and performing arts program, where teaching artists are a linchpin in the creative programming offered as a core part of ChiArts’ mission. Like charters, ChiArts is run by a separate administration and its own board, and operates independently. The administration also runs blocks of summer student arts programming in band, voice, creative writing and visual arts for $675, with some scholarships available. While the school’s union educators are members of the CTU’s charter division, ChiArts’ artist teachers have no union contractual protections and can be fired with impunity.
Teaching artists at ChiArts have confronted rounds of unilateral pay cuts and chronic job insecurity: because their positions are unprotected, teaching artists can and are fired without reason, no matter their value to the school community. A union is a way to protect staff members from arbitrary disposability, end job precarity, and better ensure long-term protections and basic rights. Workers also see unionizing as a fundamental way of supporting students’ agency and growth going forward.
“Unionizing shows our students that we value ourselves, our training, and the unique voice that every artist brings to situations.” said Christian Helem, ChiArts alumni and theatre teacher. “We are setting a precedent for the next generation of artists. It is in this fight that we lead by example.”
The point of unionizing, say teaching artists, is to bring all stakeholders together on equal grounds and create structured democratic processes for solving problems that include all voices – including the teaching artists who are central to the high school’s mission. CTU teachers and support staff welcome the opportunity to join teaching artists as fellow union members, because the basic protections provided by unionizing will strengthen the entire school community. That’s particularly critical given recent challenges at the school, where the administration has come under fire in recent months from students for failures to provide basic safety and because of management treatment of teaching artists, who lack the basic rights and agency that union members currently have.
“We are proud to welcome our incredible arts faculty and amazing office staff into our union family, and proud to join in their mission of building a more inclusive and sustainable ChiArts community,” said Dara Miller, ChiArts English teacher and chair of the CTU council at ChiArts.
For the Chicago Teachers Union, the opportunity to join with teaching artists at ChiArts and support the effort to secure basic rights and an end to precarious labor is fundamental to the Union’s commitment to bargain for the common good and support the schools Chicago’s students deserve.
“Every educator is a valued member of ChiArts’ community – whether they teach biology full-time or classical ballet part-time,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “Every one of these educators works their hearts out for our students, and we’re committed to supporting them in their effort to join our CTU family and our mission to create and sustain the schools our students deserve.”