Chicago Charter Teachers Strike, Win

Robert Bartlett

LAST DECEMBER 4th educators at the Acero charter chain in Chicago became the first charter teachers in the country to go on strike. This was both stunning to the charter industry, which was created in part to avoid the inconvenience of unionized educators, and revelatory to educators across the country.

Striking Acero teachers do the limbo to lowering class size at the Chicago Public School offices.

After picketing four days, the unity and enthusiasm of the charter teachers, along with widespread sympathy and solidarity among parents, forced the Acero leadership to capitulate. This led to a major step in closing the gap between charter and Chicago public school teachers on compensation, hours and working conditions.

The demands that charter teachers raised included issues that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) are not even legally able to raise in bargaining with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In 1995, Bill 4.5 amended the Illinois School Code to limit mandated bargaining to wages and benefits. Issues including class size and working conditions are only “permitted” if the school board agrees. (This law was designed to affect only Chicago teachers.1)

Since charter schools are privately run, charter teachers were able to bargain these issues. The Acero striking teachers won a reduction in class size from 32 to 30 (still too large), established a salary scale for paraprofessionals who often receive short shrift during negotiations, reduced the pay gap between teachers at Acero and CTU and reduced the outrageously long school year without reducing the classroom time.

They also forced the incorporation of sanctuary language, an important issue given that 90% of the student body is LatinX.

These key gains improved the education for students, and will also tend to improve the retention rate of charter school teachers. At the Robert Clemente campus, teachers told me that out of a staff of 32 teachers last year, eight did not return.

Since Clemente opened in 2012 only three original teachers remain. This churn is typical in an industry which prides itself on overworking and underpaying their staff.

Acero became embroiled in a conflict of interest scandal. The politically connected leadership of the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO) gave construction contracts to relatives of UNO board members. This was radioactive for the UNO leadership, whose chairperson Juan Rangel was one of the co-chairs of Rahm Emanuel’s election committee.

The combination of internal corruption and political cronyism paved the way for UNO to become the largest unionized network in Chicago! In fact it proved so damaging that the charter had to change their name to Acero.

How the Acero Strike Won…

The strike was won with the overwhelming support of the Acero teachers, who voted 98% in favor of the strike. Picket lines were solid with over 90% of the unionized staff picketing every day. They engaged in exuberant line dancing, going from school to school during the below freezing weather.

Each afternoon teachers from the 15 campuses converged in downtown Chicago to picket the Board of Education, the headquarters of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools (INCS), the Acero headquarters, to attend a rally at CTU headquarters or visit elected officials to explain the deficiencies in their schools and how it hurt their students.

One liberating aspect of the strike was the ability of teachers in the same building to talk to each other on the picket line — something that the demands of the job seem designed to prevent.

Over the course of the four days, teachers told aldermen who visited their picket lines of the struggles they have. A new teacher told Alderman Gilbert Villegas about being hired as a special education teacher, only to report to school and being forced to replace the kindergarten teacher who just quit.

Another special education teacher ex­plained how she was unable to spend the state-mandated hour-and-a-half individual time per week on a student’s individual education plan but only 30 minutes.

Such compelling stories led the Latino caucus in the Chicago City Council to draft a letter, signed by all their members, stating that “We demand that you agree to a contract and settle the strike as soon as possible; it is truly shameful that Acero Network has come to this point!”

Acero’s leader Richard Rodriquez’s salary of $260,000 a year is roughly equal to that of Chicago Public Schools head Janice Jackson. Yet he is responsible for 15 schools while she runs about 520.

… And What It Means

The stunning victory left the anti-CTU Chicago Tribune fuming in a December 23rd editorial “Is the final bell ringing for charter schools in Illinois?” The answer is twofold.

Charter proliferation occurred with a series of structural changes that began to undermine public education. Since Illinois passed legislation in 1996 allowing the establishment of charter schools, the number has increased rapidly.

Today there are 141 separate campuses; 126 are in Chicago, comprising 57,000 students. Ninety-four percent are students of color; most schools are located in poor neighborhoods. Linked to the proliferation of charters is the erosion of neighborhood schools that were forced to “compete” with nearby charters.

The Board of Education, appointed by the mayor, promoted charters through the Renaissance 2010 plan ( that led to the closing of 140 schools between 2001 and 2013. As the charters opened, neighborhood schools were destabilized and ultimately closed.

When the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) was elected to leadership of the CTU in 2010, they saw unionizing charter school teachers as part of their mission. So long as these teachers were an unorganized work force, charter operators would use them to build their infrastructure and undercut public education.

Although the project began before CORE won office, the new leadership understood that it needed to organize charter school teachers to fight for the schools students deserve just as CTU members were motivated (

Merging Teachers

The result of this organizing was the creation of a union of charter school teachers across a dozen different networks, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS). After a process of discussion within both the CTU and ChiACTS, both unions agreed to merge in early 2018.

Some CTU members expressed resentment toward their charter colleagues, wrongly equating them with the charter operators and political forces in Chicago who closed schools and put public school teachers out of jobs. It is clear these forces will use charter school teachers as a battering ram against public school teachers to undercut the wages and working conditions of both. So it makes sense to unite.

From the point of view of the charter school teacher who has just recently joined the union, he/she/they may be worried that the larger organization will overlook one’s specific needs. In order to facilitate a healthy merger, each union held discussions and separate ratification votes. CTU teachers voted 77% in favor and ChiACTS voted by 84%.

While these are large margins, a sizeable opposition shows some of the bitterness in the wake of public school closings and the disproportionate dismissal of Black teachers remains. One strong factor in the merger is that both CTU and ChiACTS teachers were on record against further charter expansion. A second factor is that charter teachers were facing the expiration of 11 separate contracts and were preparing to strike.

During the Acero strike, the CTU’s organizational experience was put to good use in framing the negotiations around the needs of both the students and teachers.  The CTU was able to provide the infrastructure to support Acero teachers in having both a delegate as well as a strike captain at every school.

It also applied the very successful tactics of 2012 to both pickets at each campus and rallies in central locations. This allowed the 500 Acero members to feel and demonstrate their collective power. Picketing was strong at every school as well as participation in the centralized rallies. CTU members who worked in nearby public schools stopped by the picket lines every morning to bring coffee and donuts, and march with Acero teachers.

Underfunding and Corruption

On the picket line I talked to a teacher who took a job at Acero after having taught in the unionized Waukegan (north of Chicago) school system. I asked if it was hard taking a pay cut to work at a charter school, and was stunned to hear that she received a $13,000 a year raise!

This pointed out to me the particular underfunding of rural schools — as the “Red State” teacher strikes have highlighted.

Underfunding schools is a universal problem, and teachers and parents need to demand a quality education for all children. This requires the wealthy to pay a much larger share of the taxes so that there won’t be a vast gulf in resources. It means unionization that can unite teachers across boundaries to fight for the education of their students.

This includes smaller class size, wrap-around services, innovative methods of education, music and art as an integral part of the curriculum and an end to punitive discipline practices.

The Acero strike revealed that charter teachers are just as committed as public school teachers to securing a better education for their students. They can be organized into unions capable of blunting the egregious features of the privatizers and their corporate sponsors. This, in turn, takes away much of the incentive to further expand charter schools.

CICS Strike

On February 5th teachers struck four of the 15 Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS). CICS operates under a self-described “portfolio” model where five different School Management Organizations (SMOs) run subsets of the schools. This portfolio model is eerily familiar to a recent proposal of the Los Angeles United School Board to create a breakup of the district into different portfolios.

CICS is divided into five SMOs, with one to four schools and headed by an executive officer. These layers of duplicated management mean there are 14 executives making more than $100,000 a year; the overall CEO makes $231,000.  Starting teachers, on the other hand, earn $8,000 a year less than their counterparts in CPS.

The Lloyd Bond campus of the Chicago Rise SMO lists 11 administrators and 19 teachers. Along with a top-heavy administration, CICS has a high overhead. Roughly 30% of the public funding they receive goes to its parent organization, which holds $36 million in reserves. Nineteen million in bonds is controlled by a firm owned by Craig Henderson, a founder of CICS and former president and treasurer.

Several of the founders of the SMOs started as Teach For America (TFA) alums; teaching appears to have been a step out of the classroom into the boardroom.

Eight CICS directors come from the corporate world. There are several partners from law firms including Laner, Munchin, Dombrow, Becker, Levin and Tominberg, which concentrates “exclusively in the representation of employers in labor relations, employment litigation, employee benefits and business immigration.” Others are from the investment world.

The CEO, Elizabeth Shaw, is a TFA veteran who was part of New Orleans’ “recovery school district.” Another member of the board is a founder of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, the public face of the charter industry in Illinois. This is a complicated web of individual entrepreneurs, privatization advocates, and opportunists looking to make a buck out of the charter industry.

A similarity between the Civitas-run CICS network and the Acero schools is the high turnover rate of teachers and unfilled positions in classrooms. At the Quest campus 5 out of 14 teachers left last year, and students ask teachers if they are going to leave them also. It is understandable as a special ed teacher at Quest left for a job that paid over $8,000 more; the school has been unable to fill that position leading to non-compliance with state mandates on meeting the needs of students with IEPs.

After nine days on the picket lines, CICS teachers won another victory for teachers in the charter industry by reaching an agreement that will bring salaries up to or even surpass CPS over four years. This includes both teachers and paraprofessionals.

Depending on funding increases over those years, the base wage is guaranteed to rise by 31.1%, but may go as high as 38.7%.

Eliminating the disparity between the charter and public sectors of education was one of the main goals of the CTU. Now for Acero and CICS unionized teachers this has been largely closed. This is a huge victory and should provide an impetus to organize the remaining 11 non-union CICS campuses as well as the other 70% of non-unionized charter schools in Chicago.

Along with the wage increases, a firm class size limit was written into the contract. Most classes should be no larger than 28 students with a limit of 30. In grades K-2 grades every teacher will have a classroom aide. CICS had proposed paying for both class size limits and pay raises by cutting student support services like counselors and nurses, but had to back down. They had to guarantee maintaining student supports as well as sufficient special teachers.

Another sticking point that management had to concede was parental leave for staff — something that management gave itself. This was a particularly sore point for the mostly female workforce.

A larger share of health care cost will be picked up by management, the school day and year will be shortened with no loss of instructional time for students — all of these are blows against the exploitative conditions that charter teachers work under.

CICS will be forced to pay for these concessions by taking money that they have siphoned from public funds to their umbrella organization. They moaned in the press that they would be forced to reduce the number of “instructional coaches” and assistant principals to shift the money toward the classroom. For the first time sanctuary school language was included in the contract, an issue every school needs to address.

Creative Disruption

For strike preparation and during the strike there was both creativity and resolve to force CICS to cave over the demands. The CTU’s research spotlighted CICS’s byzantine management structure, revealing corporate ties of some CICS board members. Strikers then used that research to carry out direct actions.

A notable example was at the headquarters of Price Waterhouse and Cooper, an accounting firm which employs the current president and treasurer of CICS, Laura Thonn. One hundred and fifty teachers jammed into their Loop high-rise headquarters, blocking the lobby doors, and moving on to block the elevators. Out of the 200 striking CICS teachers and staff, 40 volunteered that day to be arrested.

This dedication on the part of the strikers was key in garnering the support of candidates for mayor in Chicago, a U.S. Senator and members of the city council’s Latino Caucus.
With these victories in two of the largest charter chains in Chicago, the bar has been raised for all charter teachers in the city. These examples can lead to unity between all educators, charter and public, in the fight to provide both good learning and working conditions.

Another 13 unionized campuses still have to settle their contracts this year. With these victories, however, a standard is being set that all charter operators will need to meet or answer to their teachers who will wonder why they work under much more difficult conditions. Public school teachers and charter school teachers have developed a good working relationship that is deepening as the battles unfold, and as they fight for the rights of their students together.

March-April 2019, ATC 199

West Virginia’s Political Strike Wins Big

Eric Blanc

Yesterday was a very good day for educators and working people. Only a few hours after Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy, striking West Virginia educators forced their Republican legislature to “indefinitely postpone” a reactionary omnibus bill legalizing education privatization. Though they will remain on strike through Wednesday to ensure that the Republicans do not attempt to revive the bill, the House vote was major victory for educators in West Virginia and across the nation.

Teachers pack the gallery above the West Virginia state legislature ahead of elected officials’ arrival on Tuesday.

(Photo by MeriBeth Underwood)

West Virginia has yet again taught working people across the country a critical political lesson: strikes work.

Events over the past twenty-four hours have moved at a lightning pace. On Monday afternoon, the Senate sent to the House a particularly vicious version of the Republicans’ omnibus bill. While cynically granting public employees a 5 percent raise, the legislation would have simultaneously legalized school privatization for the first time in West Virginia. Katie Endicott, a rank-and-file teacher from Mingo County, explains why educators were so invested in stopping the introduction of charter schools and vouchers into their state:

Our students are not for sale, West Virginia is not for sale. It’s infuriating that people would try to profit off us: privatization would give millions of dollars to elites and it would create even more haves and have not. We’ve seen the charter school system fail students all across the US and that’s why we risking our pay raise to defeat this bill. We want better funding, and better schools, for all students. All students are worthy.

The intransigence of the Republican Senate leadership forced the hands of top union leaders, who for weeks have been pushing back against the intensifying calls of their ranks — and many county unions — for a work stoppage to kill the bill. As late as last Thursday, AFT-West Virginia president Fred Albert was encouraging educators to accept the House version of the bill, which would have legalized charters in West Virginia, though with a more limited number initially: “It is by no means perfect or everything we wanted, but the political reality is we do not have a majority in either chamber to kill the bill.”

Rather than promote workplace action to create a new relationship of forces, Albert stressed that the absence of a Democratic legislative majority, and the lack of support from superintendents, “presents a completely different scenario than last year with serious legal and financial consequences for our members.” AFT national president Randi Weingarten similarly issued a letter encouraging her members in West Virginia to accept the House bill.

These attempts to avoid a strike by reaching a bipartisan “compromise” were blown up both from pressure from below — Mingo county voted last Friday to strike beginning this Tuesday — and the intransigence of Senate Republican leader Mitch Carmichael. To their credit, the heads of the three educators’ unions swiftly announced on Monday evening that a statewide strike would begin the next day.

By early Tuesday morning, it had become clear that the Republicans had vastly underestimated the resolve and militancy of West Virginia educators. Katie Endicott explains why the state was able to get strike ready virtually overnight:

Legislators thought that “55 Strong” ended last March. But last year’s strike, and the strikes across the country like Los Angeles, taught us just how much power we have. It feels like last year was a practice round. …. And since last March, the rank-and-file leaders in West Virginia have continued to carry the torch, and we’ve become more mobilized and organized and connected than ever before. So “55 Strong” is not just a strike — it’s a movement. We were more confident in ourselves this time and that’s why we were able to flip the switch so quickly.

Though many superintendents had for weeks threatened to keep schools open, the overwhelming majority quickly caved in the face of the walkout announcement. Only in Putnam county did district leaders attempt to open schools Tuesday morning. With the help of hundreds of educators from neighboring counties, real picket lines went up beginning at 5am. Like last year, bus drivers played a critical role by refusing to work. Ultimately, only a handful of students, and even smaller number of teachers, crossed the picket lines. “To see that outpouring of love and solidarity was extremely inspiring,” notes Endicott.

The scene at the state capitol in Charleston was electric. Hours before the House session began, the gallery was already full and thousands of educators were crammed into the rotunda singing, chanting, and stomping.

The power and breadth of the strike — and the ability of educators Tuesday morning to paralyze Putnam — forced a size-able layer of House Republicans on Tuesday morning to reverse their previously made commitment to supporting Carmichael’s final bill. Indeed, the Senate leader Tuesday afternoon lamented to the Charleston Gazette that his House colleagues had jumped ship at the last minute: “We had an agreement, they had committed to 52 votes … What I’ll say is one’s word is all you have in this building. You need to honor your word.” Like events one year ago, Carmichael’s reactionary agenda was defeated by the power of mass workplace action.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will attempt within the next day to convince some of these legislators to reverse course and vote to “resurrect” the bill. Union leaders on Tuesday night announced that they will stay out stay out on strike Wednesday to ensure that the bill is dead.

But, for now, educators are justified in celebrating in their remarkable victory. Endicott describes the scene inside the capitol rotunda when it was announced that the bill had been voted down: “It was even more intense than last year. Honestly, that was the loudest I’ve every heard the capitol — and we’ve already been through a lot in there. Educators from their early twenties to their late sixties were literally jumping up and down, hugging and crying. It was amazing.”

And Endicott was quick to note the significance of the fact that teachers and support staff were celebrating a victory that could potentially cost them their promised pay raise. “It was not lost on us that this was a real sacrifice,” she explains. “But our slogan this year is ‘Our students first’ — and we really meant it. What I always ask my co-workers is to remember their responsibility: ‘How do you want history to remember us?’”

Of course, the struggle is far from over. Republicans may again attempt to push through a more watered-down version of the privatization bill. From below, rank-and-file educators are clear that they want a clean bill that grants public employees their pay raise without tying this to charters or ESAs. And there’s growing talk about turning this defensive strike into a offensive struggle to win better schools for West Virginian students and a real fix for the PEIA health insurance program — the pending demand from last year’s strike that has yet to be resolved.

No matter what happens over the coming days and weeks, West Virginian educators have again made history. What could have been a major blow for the nationwide teachers’ upsurge has, in less than twenty-four hours, become a resounding victory and a spur for further working-class militancy. With Oakland teachers going out this Thursday, and a strike now looming in Sacramento, there’s no sign that this revolt is going away any time soon. And that’s a very good thing: for the “political revolution” promoted by Bernie Sanders to come to life in this country, we’ll need many more workplace actions like yesterday’s inspiring victory in West Virginia.

This article was originally published in Jacobin on February 19, 2019

Eric Blanc writes on labor movements past and present. Formerly a high school teacher in the Bay Area, he is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.

L.A. Teachers Win Big and Beat Back Privatizers

Barbara Madeloni

January 28, 2019

In a joyful, rain-drenched strike, 34,000 Los Angeles teachers won things no union has ever won.

They forced Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, to accept concessions even on topics he had previously refused even to bargain over.

Rather than retreat or get cautious in the face of corporate attacks, the union went on offense, demanded fully funded public schools, and did the organizing to back up its demands with action.

Photo: Joe Brusky

L.A. will reinstate limits on class size—and for most classes, reduce those limits by four students by 2022.

Despite a pro-charter school board majority, the nation’s second-largest school district agreed to move a board resolution to support a statewide moratorium on new charter schools

It will hire more nurses, librarians, and counselors; reduce standardized testing and random police searches of students; create an immigrant defense fund; and hand budget control of 30 schools over to local communities.

It’s a very different vision from what Beutner had in mind. In November the L.A. Times and Capital & Main had leaked his plan to carve up the district into clusters of schools run like competing stock portfolios. Any school judged to be an underperformer would be sold off like a weak stock.

Teachers were weeping at the mass rally outside City Hall January 22 as United Teachers Los Angeles Secretary and Bargaining Chair Arlene Inouye reviewed the high points of the tentative agreement.

President Alex Caputo-Pearl told the crowd that this strike was “one of the most magnificent demonstrations of collective action that the United States has seen in decades.

“We did not win because of a single leader,” he said. “We did not win because of a small group of leaders. We won because you—at 900 schools across the entire city, with parents, with students, with community organizations—you walked the line.”

Members returned to their school sites that the afternoon to review the tentative agreement—which was published online in full—discuss it with their co-workers, and vote on whether to accept the deal and return to work the next morning.

Some teachers around the city were frustrated at a process they felt was rushed. But members voted a resounding 81 percent yes on the agreement, and returned to their classrooms January 23.

In the face of the union’s demands, the district had cried poverty—it said it was running a deficit. But that didn’t appear to be true, since its reserves were growing each year.

The teachers set out to force the district to put its stockpiled cash into creating the “schools Los Angeles students deserve.”


From day one of the strike, huge majorities of teachers showed up at their schools every morning to hold the picket lines, together with parents and students. Then strikers and their supporters headed downtown for rallies that topped 50,000 the first day and kept growing.

The streets were full of joy. All week, everywhere we turned there was singing, dancing, spoken word, brass bands, mariachis. Teachers didn’t let the drenching rain daunt them; they suited up in ponchos, and laminated their song sheets and picket signs.

All across the city, people were talking about the strike and its demands—in coffee shops, on the bus, in stores, at the airport car rental.

In an effort to keep schools open for 600,000 L.A. students, the district brought in scab substitutes from private contractors. It offered current subs more than double their regular wage to work during the strike.

But in L.A., the subs are part of the union. Very few chose to cross the picket lines.

Read more about how L.A. teachers overhauled their union and got organized at every school as they built towards this strike.


L.A. is the biggest U.S. school district with an elected school board. (The biggest district, New York City, and third-biggest, Chicago, are both governed by mayoral appointees.)

Year after year, its school board elections have broken spending records. Corporate education reformers spent $13 million in the last election, most of it coming from the foundations of the Walton family (the owners of Walmart) and Eli Broad, two of the biggest spenders nationally in support of charter schools, vouchers, and privatization.

That money was enough to win them a majority of the seats on the school board. And after the previous superintendent resigned early last year for health reasons, that majority handpicked a superintendent, Beutner.

But as it turned out, a bought and paid for board and superintendent weren’t as powerful as a good old-fashioned strike.

Readers who work in education or the public sector will be familiar with the claim that “the money just isn’t there.” UTLA refused to buy into it, and named the privatization schemes behind it. Rather than retreat or get cautious in the face of corporate attacks, the union went on offense, demanded fully funded public schools, and did the organizing to back up its demands with action.

The teachers won big—and provided us all a model for how to fight back. The victory, said Caputo-Pearl, renewed “the strike not only as the last resort, but as something you do to build a social movement.”

This article was originally posted on Labor Notes on January 24, 2019.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #479, February 2019.

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