With a potential strike looming, unionized Chicago teachers at the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) rallied with their allies Thursday afternoon in their push for a "fair contract."
They picketed outside the charter network's downtown headquarters, 209 W. Jackson Boulevard, with signs that read: "We don't want to strike but we're ready" and "We will fight for a fair contract."
"Our students are all low income, and (UCSN has) offices down here in this fancy building, and they're not willing to make cuts at the top" to improve the quality of education for students, said Erica Stewart.
Stewart is a 5th grade teacher at UNO Sandra Cisneros Charter School and the spokesperson for United Educators of UNO (UEU). The union represents 532 teachers and support staff across UCSN's 15 Chicago campuses.
"We're picketing in hopes to get (UCSN's) attention and send a loud message that we are willing to strike, and we need them to cut fat from the top to make better quality education for the students," Stewart said.
Here's more from Stewart and the protest:
UEU's contract with the charter network expired on Sunday. The two sides have been in contract talks for the past eight months, union officials said.
Last Thursday, UNO's unionized workforce overwhelmingly voted to set an October 19 strike date if a contract agreement is not reached by then. If UEU hits the picket lines, it would be the nation's first-ever charter school strike.
"Teachers and staff support are prepared to walk off in order to secure a fair contract for our kids and our teachers," Stewart said. "Basically, what it comes down to is, nobody ever wants to strike. But we need management to have a sense of urgency and to understand that it's so very important for our kids to have (a) quality education."
UEU is seeking a 32-student cap on class sizes and fighting against proposed pay cuts. Stewart said UCSN wants to reduce its pension pickup for union members and increase their health care costs. The network is also interested in increasing class sizes to about 34 students, union officials said.
UNO support staff, who reportedly received no pay increase this year, would face the biggest salary cut under the network's proposal, Stewart said.
Andy Crooks, a special education paraprofessional at UNO Rogers Park Elementary, said his pay would be reduced between 5 percent to 7 percent.
"In the interest of our students, in order to provide them a quality education, we need to be able to hire quality teachers, and having a fair contract with capped class sizes and competitive compensation will allow that to happen," he said.
On the compensation issue, UCSN says in an update on its website that it has "proposed a compensation package that ensures that no UEU member suffers a salary reduction due to the new salary scale or additional individual pension contribution." The charter network added that it has "proposed maintaining a salary that is competitive with (Chicago Public Schools) for all UEU members."
UCSN also released this statement Thursday after the union's protest:
Parents make a choice to send their children to charter schools. We respect that choice and intend to continue working in earnest to reach an agreement that is fair to our employees and, most importantly, allows us to continue providing the quality education for which UCSN is known. Unlike CPS, UCSN does not have access to (tax increment financing) funds for additional revenue, so any agreement we reach has to be cognizant of our financial constraints.
We are disappointed that the UEU would authorize a strike. It is unfair to put our parents and students through this considering that teachers received generous raises just two months ago. UCSN is willing to continue negotiating even though the UEU and their contracted (Chicago Teachers Union) representatives have declined UCSN's offer to extend the previous contract as well as our offer to have a Federal Mediator assist in negotiations to help bring this matter to a conclusion.
In the event of a teachers strike next Wednesday, all UCSN classes and extracurricular activities will be canceled and all school buildings will be closed, the charter network said on its website.
"Families are asked to keep their student(s) at home or at a non-UCSN facility for the duration of the UEU action," the network said. "Chicago Park District facilities and libraries are options to consider."