Chicago charter school teachers have walked off the job in a first-of-its-kind strike. Here's why.

First of its kind - here's why


(CNN) - A strike by charter school teachers in Chicago, described as the nation's first, concluded its first week after staff members asked for better wages, less crowded classrooms and decreased work hours.

About 500 of teachers and other staff members with the Acero Schools charter network walked off the job, according to CNN affiliate WGN-TV, after a failed contract renegotiation with management by Tuesday's deadline. The network runs 15 privately operated campuses across Chicago, housing 7,500 students.

Classes have been canceled as the strike continues. All extracurricular activities have been canceled, as well.

New contract leads to strike

The strike includes teachers, apprentices and other non-instructional staff -- office coordinators and information technology staff -- for a total of about 540 employees, according to Nicole Gaffney, a spokeswoman for the non-profit Acero Schools.

"The union is striking over terms of a new contract," Gaffney said.

The Chicago Teachers Union called the strike the first against a charter operator in US history.

The union said in a statement Tuesday that teachers are demanding "smaller class sizes, increased special education funding, more autonomy over curriculum and grading, equal pay for equal work, additional resources for classrooms and students, sanctuary schools for their overwhelmingly Latin student population, and better compensation and treatment of paraprofessionals."

WGN reports that Acero teachers make about $13,000 less than their public school counterparts.

The union said Acero Schools management "has been denying resources from its schools." The network spent $1 million less on staff salary costs than in 2017, according to an audit obtained by the union.

"As of June 2018, Acero had $24 million in unrestricted cash in its accounts, plus a separate reserve of $4 million in cash as part of its requirements to its bond holders," the union said in its statement.

Despite an access of cash, the union said Acero is reluctant to give "a penny more in compensation to paraprofessionals, their lowest-wage workers." The union also said within a two-year cycle, the network's turnover rate averages 30%.

'They're left with no other choice'

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told CNN on Friday the strike is "about educators fighting for the teaching and learning conditions kids need, no matter what public school they attend."

"This strike is also about questioning a charter school model that seeks to run education as a business rather than a contribution to our kids' futures. Acero executives are more interested in profits than students," she said, adding that Acero educators are paid less than their counterparts in Chicago Public Schools but work a longer day and year in classrooms with a student-teacher ratio of 32-to-1.

Teachers, Weingarten said, "want to feel like they have the support and resources they need to help their students become engaged citizens of the world. Teachers walk out for their kids when they're left with no other choice."

Richard L. Rodríguez, CEO of Acero Schools, released a written and video statement Tuesday condemning the strike.

"We are very disappointed that union leaders have put their anti-charter political agenda ahead of the interests of our students. There is absolutely no good reason to put students and parents through the upheaval of a strike," he said.

Rodríguez said the union is striking because they want to remove students from classrooms, despite the fact "Acero continues to be one of the best-performing charter networks in Chicago."

"The sad fact is that interests from outside our community are using our students and our schools as a means to advance their national and anti-charter school platform. They don't want our schools to succeed because it doesn't serve their agenda," he said.

The teachers union said in a statement Friday that the charter operator filed an unfair labor practice charge against the union. Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey responded by calling Rodríguez "a political hack trying to build his empire and the size of his wallet at the expense of our students."

"Acero's management is desperate, and our pressure is working. There is nothing illegal about our strike over wages, benefits, class size and other conditions that are mandatory subjects of bargaining under the federal labor law that governs this contract," Sharkey said.

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