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Lincoln Square, North Center, Irving Park

Old Town School Of Folk Music Teachers Want To Unionize To Give Them Voice In How School Is Run

Ald. Ameya Pawar, who said the school is the second-largest employer in the area, rallied with the music teachers Tuesday.

Old Town School of Folk Music teachers at a Dec. 11, 2018 rally for their unionization effort.
Alex V. Hernandez / Block Club Chicago
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LINCOLN SQUARE — After filing to form a union at the Old Town School of Folk Music, teachers gathered to rally support for their cause in front of the school’s Lincoln Avenue building Tuesday morning.

Part concert — with acoustic performances of songs like “Stand By Me,” “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Solidarity Forever” — and part press conference, the rally at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave. aimed to explain why faculty at the school are forming the Old Town Teachers Organization, or OTTO. 

“Our decision to unionize aligns with the culture and history of the American Folk music tradition,” said Lindsay Weinberg, a teacher of the school of the past 13 years. “We are asking the administration to voluntarily recognize our union.”

On Monday, teachers filed formal paperwork with the National Labor Relations Board. Since November 2017, teachers have organized a drive to create a formalized, collective body with support from the local workers’ rights group Arise Chicago and now faculty have signed cards to form a union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Because teachers have only filed their paperwork this week,  the teachers still need to form a bargaining unit to negotiate a contract with school administrators.

“As the administration became aware of our work, we hoped to be viewed as equal stakeholders in the positive future of the school, but instead, we were viewed as at-will employees with no real power,” said Chris Walz, a teacher at Old Town for the past 22 years. “That’s when we decided to align with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.”

Teachers hope to gain a legal footing from which to negotiate with school administrators not just on employment issues, but also have a stronger say in how the school is managed.

John Mead, another teacher at the school, said the canceling of “crucial programs,” a lack of effective marketing to attract new students, tuition increases and administrative salary increases are troubling to teachers. 

“We worked with the administration and the board of directors for about six months and pretty extensively on a lot of issues,” John Mead said. “While we were in the room with these people for months there was not a hint that the such an incredibly huge and devestiating decision [selling the 909 W. Armitage Ave. building] would be made. It was made without anyone obviously knowing anything about it.”

Credit: Alex Hernandez / Block Club Chicago
Chris Walz (center) has been a teacher at Old Town School of Folk Music for the past 22 years.

Mead said the union drive isn’t just about wages and benefits or the planned sale of the Armitage building. Those are just the most public examples of the school’s leadership making monumental decisions without consulting teachers, he said. 

On Monday Dave Zibell, spokesperson for the Old Town School of Folk Music, told Block Club the school would let the process play out with the National Labor Relations Board. School officials are in the process of reviewing the petition filed with the labor board now. 

“Once we have reviewed it, we will coordinate with the NLRB and union attorney to try and reach an agreement on the scope of the unit and election details. We recognize the teachers’ right to organize and are committed to staying neutral,” he said. 

In October, the school announced plans to sell its Armitage building and use the funds to help create an endowment for the school. Teachers and students at the school who were unhappy with this decision have spent the past couple months asking the school’s board of directors to reconsider their plan.

RELATED: Old Town School Of Folk Teachers See ‘No Wisdom’ In Plan To Sell Armitage Avenue Building

And last week, after outrage from the school’s community, the school’s board decided to postpone the sale of the 909 W. Armitage Ave. building for three months.

However the board still plans to close the music store at the Armitage building by mid-January 2019 and continues to offer non-teaching employees buyout packages. Layoffs are also possible.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th), who rallied with Old Town School of Folk Music teachers Tuesday, said the school is the second-largest employer in the area. The school is an anchor in Lincoln Square and its decisions have a “multiplier effect” on the community’s development, he said. 

“That’s a primary reason why we’re asking management recognize the union today. This doesn’t happen without the folks standing here today,” Pawar said.

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