Old Town School of Folk Music teachers at a Dec. 11, 2018 rally for their unionization effort. Credit: Alex Hernandez / Block Club Chicago

LINCOLN SQUARE —  A majority of teachers from the Old Town School of Folk Music voted Wednesday to join the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the latest step in their push to unionize.

Since November 2017, teachers have worked on the effort with support from the local workers’ rights group Arise Chicago.

“We’ve known all along that the Old Town School teachers form a strong and passionate community, but it’s so exciting to see that truth in action through this vote to unite so we can strengthen the school as one collective body,” said Lindsay Weinberg , who has taught at Old Town for the past thirteen years.

“Our group came together fueled by a desire to do what’s right, to support our organization’s rich community and to preserve its soul,” she said.

Shelly Ruzicka, spokesperson for Arise Chicago, said 141 Old Town teachers voted to join the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and 7 teachers voted against the unionization effort. 

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

During a November 2018 meeting with the school’s board of directors, teachers gave a presentation about their decision to form the Old Town Teachers Organization, or OTTO, and begin a unionization effort with the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

“When [the school] started, Studs Terkel, Pete Seeger and others were labor organizers traveling the country, singing for the rights of working people,” Dan Montgomery said, president of the federation. “There’s no better place to form a union than here and now.”

The results of Wednesday’s vote will next be submitted to the National Labor Relations Board for certification. On Tuesday morning Shelly Ruzicka, a spokesperson for Arise, said the NLRB has stayed open during the ongoing shutdown of the federal government and will be “there to certify the vote.” 

In October, the school announced it plans to sell its 909 W. Armitage Ave. building and use the funds to help create an endowment for the school.

Teachers and students at the school were unhappy with this decision and, after outrage from staff, students and fans of the school the sale has since been postponed until March to “extend the discussion period regarding the sale of its building.”

And after the board’s decision to sell the Armitage building became public, 117 teachers, about half the teaching staff at the school, published an open letter saying they saw “no wisdom” in the plan.

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

By forming OTTO, teachers at Old Town hope to gain a legal footing from which to negotiate with school administrators on not just employment issues, but also have a stronger say in how the school is managed.

“I am so encouraged by the number of true believers in the teaching staff who voted for our union in order not only to benefit themselves and their working conditions, but the overall health and future of the Old Town School of Folk Music,” said Chris Walz, a teacher at Old Town for the past 22 years. “We look forward to working together with the administration toward our shared, positive future.”

In December, Dave Zibell, a spokesperson for Old Town, told Block Club the school would let the process play out with the National Labor Relations Board.

After OTTO announced the results of the vote, the school released a statement Wednesday night saying Old Town’s leadership has “supported a position of neutrality and have worked collaboratively with the teachers throughout the process.”

“Today, we recognize their decision and know that there is work ahead to ensure Old Town School’s continued excellence in teaching and in serving our shared community,” the statement said. “We continue to be committed to our  partnership, as we work together to transform Old Town School, honoring the past and recognizing a bright future ahead.”

It has been a busy few months for the school. In addition to the union push and the building sale, Bau Graves recently retired from his role as Old Town’s executive director. In November he took a leave of absence after being hospitalized with serious blockages in three coronary arteries, according to the school.

On Jan. 3 the school announced Graves was stepping down from the role because he wanted to focus on his health and begin a new chapter in his life.

Deputy Director Rashida Phillips is the school’s interim executive director, a position she’s held since Graves first took his leave of absence, while the school seeks a permanent replacement for the role. 

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