March 25, 2010

More Chicago Charter School Teachers Aspire to a Union

Teachers at four charter schools on Chicago’s northwest side went public last week with their organizing campaign, marching into their buildings to present principals with cards. The schools, run by ASPIRA Inc., are the latest campaign by the fledgling charter organizing project called the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff—a collaboration of the Teachers (AFT) union, its Illinois affiliate, and the Chicago Teachers Union.

Two-thirds of the 100 teachers on four campuses—one middle school and three high schools—filed the cards with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Recent changes to state law allow charter teachers to organize using card check. In the same piece of legislation, lawmakers expanded the cap on charter schools to curry favor with native son Arne Duncan, now the Education Secretary, whose federal Race to the Top contest will dole out stimulus dollars to states that allow more of the publicly funded, independently run charters. Illinois is pushing hard for the money, and is in the running for the first set of grants.

The law focused charter expansion in Chicago along a model developed by its schools’ former “CEO” Duncan. Vowing to close or convert eight schools after targeting nearly two dozen last year, the city has opened the door to charters as part of its 2004 plan to open "100 new schools" by this year. But the PR sheen of these "labs of innovation" has begun to fade as charter attempts (with more "flexible," non-union teachers) to improve education—and raise test scores—has returned unconvincing results.

Teachers at Chicago International Charter Schools—the largest charter operator in the city—unionized and signed their first contract in late 2009 after teachers got fed up with a lack of supplies, a lack of job security, and a mandate to fill class time with standardized test prep. The organizing drive stretched out for months as the school’s board of directors, which includes a union-busting lawyer, insisted it had contracted operations to a private entity and was therefore not subject to the 2009 card check law. They tried to flip teacher organizers against the union and eventually pushed for an NLRB election, which the union won anyway.

Organizers say there are no such legal complications at Aspira, which operates all four schools. Teachers gave schools CEO Jose Rodriguez the weekend to think over the union effort. City and state lawmakers called Rodriguez to support teachers and encourage him not to challenge the drive. On Tuesday, teachers supported the union at an emergency meeting of Aspira’s board.

An organizer on the campaign says teachers want more transparency from administrators on the school's spending and on teacher evaluation procedures. He says the drive aims to create a more collaborative school environment, not an “us versus them” dynamic.

Although Aspira—founded by a community group with decades-old roots in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community—is not exactly an investment-fund outfit, it’s had its fair share of controversy in recent years. In 2008, teachers and parents spoke out against a variety of scandals: a former principal was accused of changing grades, approving strip searches on students, and firing whistleblower teachers.

According to Chicago-based Substance News, parents at Aspira’s Mirta Ramirez High formed a parent-teacher organization in 2007 to pressure Rodriguez after four years of sending their kids to a "temporary" school location that was not up to code. The school finally moved into an existing elementary school.

With a clear majority of cards on the table, teachers anticipate victory at the labor board, but Aspira could still try to challenge the drive. Whichever route the school CEO takes, he’ll have to take into account a corps of mobilized teachers.

March 18, 2010

Can Public Education Be Saved?

Walkouts, student strikes, and marches shook every level of California’s embattled public education system March 4. And the action paused only briefly as activists savored short-term victories and set about planning the next wave of challenges to lawmakers and administrators.

University of California (UC) students at Berkeley blocked campus gates and Santa Cruz students shut down their campus for the day. In the afternoon, college students joined forces with K-12 students and teachers in Oakland, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, and Los Angeles.

Rallies in each city numbered in the thousands—a gathering sponsored by the San Francisco Labor Council drew 20,000 people to the Civic Center. Hundreds of marchers took their protests onto the freeways, stopping traffic for nearly an hour in Oakland. UC Davis students marched through two police lines before baton-swinging cops turned them away at an on-ramp.

The call for action against crippling state budget cuts—$17 billion in two years to California’s education fund—was taken up on all 10 UC campuses, at each of the 23 Cal State campuses, and at dozens of community colleges. The turnout was as unprecedented as the crisis. “It just brought out a positive energy from so many new spaces,” said Claudette Begin, a clerical worker at Berkeley. Actions spread to 32 states.

After an October conference drew 800 people to Berkeley, regional committees organized and formed demands, which varied from place to place. In Oakland, the list was broad: fully funded, free public education, pre-school through higher ed; an end to the federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top competition; restoration of all public sector cuts and expansion of public services; full citizenship rights for immigrants and an end to ICE raids; a halt to foreclosures, to name a few.


Organizers now face a test of stamina in battles against a federal restructuring of K-12 schools, still-looming state budget cuts, and corporate campus management.

Thousands of K-12 teachers rallied after school in downtown Los Angeles, gearing up for a fight against 2,800 pending layoffs. Class sizes have already exploded after last year’s cut to the teaching force.

In Oakland and San Francisco schools, students and teachers walked out of class during a morning “disaster drill” called jointly by unions and school districts.

Campus unions have organized with students for months. The Technical Employees at UC (UPTE-CWA) called two one-day strikes last year that meshed with large student mobilizations against fee hikes. No campus unions struck on March 4, but the UC clerical workers (CUE)—working without a contract—encouraged members to take the day off. Service workers (AFSCME) joined marches statewide.

UPTE gained a tentative agreement just before March 4. If approved on March 19, it would resolve the standoff over furloughs, accepting the days off but securing sizable raises over the next three years. The deal also caps health care premiums and defines UC’s pension contributions.

“This is a direct product of our months-long pressure campaign targeting UC administrator greed,” said UPTE President Jelger Kalmijn. “Now we have to bring the fight to the state government.”


Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators are readying their machetes as another $20 billion budget deficit approaches this year. The state’s inability, or unwillingness, to raise revenues brought a 20 percent funding cut to higher education last year.

Student fees have spiked—by 182 percent since 2002 in the Cal State system. Programs and classes have been abolished, while lecturers and campus unions still fight over layoffs.

Berkeley professor George Lakoff is sponsoring a long-shot ballot initiative to overturn the requirement that the legislature pass budgets or any new taxes by a two-thirds majority. The California Faculty Association, representing teachers in the CSU system, is pushing a bill that would garner $2 billion for higher ed by taxing oil companies. California is the only oil-producing state with no oil extraction tax.

Meanwhile, activists won’t let UC administrators off the hook. While pulling down fat salaries, school officials are contracting out campus services and pursuing private donors to stay afloat—looking for corporate solutions to a public concern.

When UC President Mark Yudof proclaimed support for the March 4 protests, in an attempt to deflect blame to state government, students called the regents out for funding campus expansion, including a multi-million-dollar renovation of Berkeley’s football stadium.

Months of student building takeovers and experiments in democratic organizing have been animated by their call for free public education and to democratize the appointed regents. Students also want transparency in UC’s spending, salaries, and investments, a call that prompted a state senator to initiate an audit of the UC budget.


The crisis of priorities—and resulting student fee hikes—is exacerbating long-standing problems of access to higher education for students of color. Black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented at UC campuses: 1 percent of UCLA’s 26,000 undergrads, for example, are Black. The state’s ban on affirmative action in 1996 spurred a drop in Black and Latino enrollment at UC.

The fight for racial justice became a major element of March 4 activities. At UC San Diego, whose freshman class is 1 percent Black, administrators tried to tamp down anger over a racist fraternity party. Hundreds of students demanded “real action” after walking out of a university-sponsored teach-in on race relations.

The madness continued: a noose was discovered in a school library and a KKK-style hood was found on a campus statue. The Black Student Union and allies celebrated on March 4 when administrators met their deadline and their list of 19 demands.

The students say institutional policies have marginalized people of color on campus, creating the conditions for racism and ignorance to fester.

“More fees, more cuts to programs that serve underrepresented communities—it’s all serving the re-segregation of the university,” said Eric Gardner, a member of the student-worker coalition that organized for March 4 at UCLA.


In Sacramento, Schwarzenegger seemed to be trying to appease: his January budget proposal would set aside more for higher education and make fewer cuts to schools than last year. But to free up cash, he proposed privatizing the state’s vast prison system.

“Some people are saying, ‘look, he’s paying attention,’” said Berkeley grad student Eli Friedman. “But his funding guarantee doesn’t include K-12 schools—they’re trying to divide and conquer.”

As the next budget negotiation approaches, California’s right wing remains in an anti-tax frenzy. A group of Republican legislators have taken an oath never to raise taxes, all but ensuring more cuts—a situation that has drawn little more than a shrug from President Obama.

The student and worker mobilization is hammering both parties for their refusal to get their priorities straight. “The Republicans are a party of ‘no,’ and Democrats can’t figure out how to stabilize things without a transfer of wealth” from the rich to working people—a move they’re reluctant to make, says Oakland teacher Jack Gerson.

Organizers know more cuts could be on the way. CUE activist Begin remains wary of the summertime lull when administrators can slash and burn at emptied campuses.

But activists’ unprecedented mobilization across campus, union, and generational lines is providing fuel for the long haul.

“I had gotten very pessimistic over time, but I’m not now,” says Gerson, a veteran of the ’60s. “We’re starting to see a mass movement, and this is just the beginning.”