Where is the Union Now?

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Students and teachers at ChiArts walk out of school in support of the teachers' union. Photograph by Stephanie Galicia.

by Elizabeth Vazquez

Last spring, The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) was dotted with red t-shirts on both students and teachers. Some students had gone further by creating posters and writing on themselves, allying themselves with the faculty. The issue on everyone’s minds? Academic teachers unionizing. 

Since the tension peaked in an almost immediately extinguished strike, talk of the Union in the halls has effectively gone silent this school year. Students are no longer caught in the middle of a clash between academic teachers and administration sending shockwaves from a hidden board room.

 The question now, however, is this: Where does the Union stand after half a year’s worth of back and forth over social media, walk outs, and negotiations?

Currently, most students know significantly less about what’s happening now than they did last year. 

Caitlin Hubert, a senior in Creative Writing, said she doesn’t know anything substantial about the current happenings of the Union or their meetings. Her main source of information during the crisis was the teachers’ then-active social media presence, coupled with memos from Executive Director Jose Ochoa and teacher conferences. At the end of the day, Hubert said she believes transparency would be useful, especially since the contract ultimately will affect the student body. Now, students like her are left in the dark.

The fact of the matter is that the Union is still active — just no longer in terms of negotiations. AP US History and Human Geography teacher Emily Maassen said that the Union is very much united, and very much alive, just no longer in a contract fight. The task is working within said contract to improve ChiArts as a whole, but also “build the kind of school that teachers, students, and administration wants to see,” as Massen put it. 

Major differences include more attention to teacher input on decisions from Administration, and creating a linear process to address issues in the school on the Union’s behalf. Included in that process is the Professional Solutions Committee, which acts as a formalized platform for Administration and academic teachers to address day-to-day issues, including those of the students.

Seamus Foley, a math teacher and acting chair in the Union, said that the main goal of last year was to make sure that teachers had the resources to provide quality education to their students. Foley added that he wants the school to improve at retaining its educators, rather than being forced to fill teaching spots with whoever is available. 

Teachers have also seen a change in payment due to the contract, which was a crucial demand in last year’s conflict. Foley cited Linda Darling-Hammond’s “The Flat World and Education; How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine our Future” as being informative in understanding the importance of teacher salaries. He has quoted Darling-Hammond at several Union-based events, specifically: “Investments in teachers’ salaries produce higher marginal gains in student performance than equivalent investments in other budget areas more remote from instruction.”

Basically, in Foley’s eyes, a teacher is motivated to teach better when they’re paid more, so students receive a better education. They’re also more likely to be retained if they have a higher paycheck.

Now, it’s simply an act of implementing said contract, and knowing what can be amended when the contract is revisited in three years.  

Brenda Torres, ChiArts’ Integrated Arts teacher, believes that really only time can tell how well the Union will pay off in terms of student benefit. Torres said she worries that the needs of teachers and subsequently students will be generalized in this situation with a formalization of addressing issues and a group speaking on behalf of individuals. 

“Education should be contextualized, not generalized,” Torres said. She added that the main solution to this issue is openings for dialogue at all levels of the process, including student access to raising issues. Regardless, Torres sees the loss of seven teacher as a bad omen for the school’s future.

The Union is still active, but it is no longer in a place of conflict. Now, teachers are learning the bounds and norms of a unionized ChiArts, and forging a path for open dialogue with their Administration. Relationships are being mended, and issues will continue to be raised, coming as far as the student level.

As always, we support our teachers and the union and share responsibility in facing the financial challenges,” Ochoa said when asked about the Union’s future and the outcome of last year’s negotiations. 

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