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Solidarity key to 16-week rebellion as CTU members refuse charter’s return to work order

A picket line at Latino Youth Charter High School during their strike

“Solidarity is how we won our strike and solidarity is how we are going to keep each other safe by continuing to refuse to return to work in our building,” said Ada O’Hara-Ramos, CTU member at Latino Youth High School, a unionized charter in Little Village.

As CPS continues its push to force members back into unsafe buildings in January, the successful rebellion at Latino Youth offers an important lesson: solidarity is power.

In August, the charter operator, Pilsen Wellness Center, demanded that all teachers work full-time from their classrooms beginning Aug. 31. The teachers — the bargaining unit only covers teachers — did not feel safe doing so, nor did the boss offer any convincing arguments for the necessity of risking in-person work.

Power in numbers

The teachers made the collective decision to send individual letters to management asserting their right to work from home in order to avoid needless risk of death or injury. All members have remained working remotely since the start of the school year, despite the charter’s continued demands and attacks.

“It wasn’t an easy decision for us to make, as some members really wanted to return to work in the building,” Juan Tolentino, chair of the union council at Latino Youth, explained. “They had issues with internet availability and other difficulties with working from home. But our members were willing to make some sacrifices, not to mention taking on the risk of outright disobeying an employer directive, in order to keep all of us safe.”

Retaliation from the employer came quickly. Unless they were on leave, teachers did not receive a paycheck on the first pay period of the year. The union filed a grievance and members filed wage theft claims with the Illinois Department of Labor. The charter has since relented and resumed paying members, although it refuses to pay for their first day back. That retaliation is being resolved favorably as a grievance makes its way to arbitration.

Not an easy path

Educators at Latino Youth began organizing a union in 2009, on the very day they learned that teachers at CICS had become Chicago’s first unionized charter school. But their path toward full union recognition wasn’t easy.

When members received certification from the Illinois Educational Labor Board in 2019, management appealed to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). During this time, Republicans were holding up then-President Barack Obama’s appointments to the board, stalling all NLRB actions. Pilsen Wellness exploited that dysfunction for almost three years, but members finally won re-certification in 2013.

On May Day 2019, Latino Youth educators joined CTU members at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy and Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy in the first multi-employer charter school strike in the nation. CTU members at Acero had won the nation’s first-ever strike at a charter school five months earlier and successful walkouts followed at Civitas International Charter Schools and Passages Charter School.

Historic strikes, historic wins

The agreements resulting from all of these strikes, as well as near-strikes at four other CTU-represented charters, contained unprecedented and dramatic gains in rights, benefits, and student protections. Contract wins included guaranteed special education services, increased wraparound/trauma services, sanctuary protections for students and staff, enforceable class size limits as low as 23 students and, in some cases, raises tied to the CPS salary schedule.

The CTU’s charter division is rolling back a decades-long tide of education privatization with our strategy of organizing and fighting for contracts that transfer profits, power, and rights away from the charter industry and reinvest them in our members, our students and our communities.

“We didn’t form a union because we like to fight,” offers O’Hara-Ramos, “But we will be bold, even militant, in defense of our students and each other. The issues are life and death now, and we know that the key to winning all these fights is solidarity, so we will stay strong and stay out until we win.”

Chris Baehrend is chair of the CTU’s charter division.