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Chicago: ChiArts part-time teaching artists vote to join CTU

By staff

New members of the CTU

Chicago, IL – Teaching artists and school office staff at Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) have voted to join the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), June 3. Three office staff voted to join the union, and later in the day, part-time arts teachers – who make up the backbone of the school’s programs in the visual arts, music, theater, dance and creative writing conservatories voted 75% (41 yes to 14 no ) to join the union.

“It’s a joy and an honor to welcome these new members into the CTU family,” said CTU President Jesse Sharkey. “This school doesn’t run without its office staff and its teaching artists, and this vote is their embrace of organizing in unity to improve working conditions for educators and learning conditions for ChiArts students.”

Stagnant wages, lack of job security and basic rights fueled the push by teaching artists to join the union, the same way those conditions pushed full-time educators to join the CTU in 2018. Since that time, with the first negotiated contract under their belt, ChiArts CTU members have seen wages and working conditions improve, school staff stabilize and educators given a voice at the table.

By joining the union, the school’s teaching artists and main office staff seek the same basic rights and valued voice as their union colleagues at the school.

The vote came despite relentless pressure from management to reject unionizing and joining the CTU.

“I feel a great sense of pride and joy in being a part of this effort with my colleagues,” said Patrick Lentz, visual arts department assistant and teaching artist. “It has been really enjoyable building relationships and connecting with one another. What we have created in terms of solidarity across our conservatories and school is powerful. No amount of anti-union letters can make a dent in the sense of community that has come out of our organizing.”

ChiArts is a CPS “contract” school. Similar to charter schools, contract schools are publicly-funded but privately-run institutions. ChiArts receives funding from CPS, along with private donations, and admits public school students into its intensive visual and performing arts program. But, like charters, the school is governed by a separate administration, has its own board, and operates independently.

The teaching artists are essential to ChiArts mission to provide creative programming for budding student artists. While the school’s full-time educators have had job security and other union protections since 2018, until today, the school’s artist teachers could be fired with impunity.

Rounds of unilateral decisions from management and chronic job insecurity spurred the organizing drive by ChiArts teaching artists. Without union protections, these educators, who are critical to the ChiArts mission, could be fired for no reason, regardless of their value to the school community. Workers also viewed unionizing as a fundamental way of supporting students’ agency and growth going forward.

“As an alumni of ChiArts, I want to provide the best education to the students – and that's not possible if I, as a teacher, am not being treated fairly,” said music teaching artist Kurt Shelby. “I can't give the students what they need if I don't have what I need. This union effort and the sense of community that has been built has restored my hope for the future.”

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