Chicago charter goes union

June 6, 2012

Carlos Enriquez reports on an organizing victory at a charter school in Chicago.

TWO DAYS after a unanimous vote to unionize, teachers at the Youth Connection Leadership Academy received a notice of closure from the charter school's board. But after public outcry and the scheduling of a press conference outside of the board's monthly meeting, it was decided to leave the school open for the time being.

The school, Youth Connection Leadership Academy, is an alternative high school located on the South Side of Chicago in the predominately African American Bronzeville neighborhood. The school is entirely composed of students who have been expelled from the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system.

The charter school is made up of only about 180 students and employs 20 teachers and staff. The teachers at the school are the newest members of Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), which is Local 4343 of the American Federation of Teachers.

The motivation to unionize came from the teachers feeling that the board was overlooking them when making decisions that affected the students. "We felt that all major decisions were made over our head," stated Rachel Blackburn, YCLA teacher. "These decisions affect students, and we want to be there to guide them through changes. We are on the forefront, and we understand the need of our students. We want to have a voice."

Youth Connection Leadership Academy teachers and allies hold a press conference
Youth Connection Leadership Academy teachers and allies hold a press conference (Tony Rawker)

Upon hearing of the vote to unionize, the body that oversees YCLA, the Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) network, sent letters to each teacher individually informing them of plans to close down the school.

The letter didn't mention the teachers' decision to unionize as a reason to close--instead, it cited "low" retention and "poor" attendance numbers that failed to meet CPS's criteria. But the timing of the news seemed very suspicious. In response, Chicago ACTS immediately filed an unfair labor practice against the school's board.

ONCE THE news of the school's closure broke out, the newly formed teachers' union--with the aid of the Chicago Teachers Union and other allies--called for a 4:30 p.m. press conference on May 31, the day of the decisive board meeting.

One of the key reasons noted by the union for the press conference was getting the word out to the community about the board's unfair treatment of teachers and students, as well as how detrimental a potential closure would be to the community.

Among the speakers were YCLA graduate and teacher Nicole Durham, who spoke on the importance of alternative schools and of having an organized workforce in order to offer the students best education possible. Durham mentioned that unlike most other charters, YCLA doesn't have selective enrollment criteria, and the fact that closing a school comprised of students that need a second chance would leave them in a very difficult situation.

Other speakers at the press conference included students, parents and members of the CTU.

"The one thing teachers have within their ability to control is whether or not they can organize," said Jackson Potter, the CTU chief of staff. "They have rights to demand things for their students and their colleagues. When these teachers went and exercised their rights, [officials] threatened to close down the school. When they close our schools, they wreak havoc and disruption to our communities."

The solidarity shown between the CTU and the newly unionized YCLA teachers demonstrates who really cares about the safety and education of the youth of Chicago. Furthermore, it highlights the hypocrisy of the Chicago Public Schools and is proof that in the age of school "reform," the only thing corporate-influenced school boards care about is privatization and helping business to profit off education.

Along with the entire teaching staff, also in attendance were teachers from other charter schools, members of the Occupy Chicago Labor Working Group, Jobs with Justice and other members of the community.

Inside the board meeting, around 100 people packed the room and shared concerns and demands for better schooling. The board came off as very indecisive, and appeared to have least momentarily been persuaded by the fightback from the teachers and their union, the students, the parents and supporters throughout the city.

The struggle to save teachers jobs at YCLA, along with other charter schools facing union-busting, will foreshadow with the overall battle of the CTU against CPS and union-busting, anti-labor Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the union's struggle for a good contract.

Further Reading

From the archives