Friday, February 18, 2011

Chicago’s Gulen charter school teachers (once again) escalate their efforts to unionize

The Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA) is one of 25 charter schools operated by Concept Schools (and HERE).* In June 2010, the school fired a pregnant teacher who had received performance bonuses but who had been trying to organize a union. This started a series of very interesting events.

Read this installment to learn about the progression of protests, the teachers’ alliances of community support, the school’s hiring of a “notoriously expensive union-busting law firm” (Q: With whose tax dollars? A: Yours), the teachers’ attempt to apply pressure to and embarrass their local Gulenist organization, the school’s consent to enter into negotiations, stalled progress, and, now, a new type of demonstration (= protests outside the work offices of CMSA board members).



Charter School Fires Teacher Active in Union Organizing
Chicago Math and Science Academy Also Challenges Teachers’ Union Rights

The Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA), a public charter school, fired a highly regarded pregnant teacher who helped organize a union at the school in June. The firing occurred as the school also challenged its teachers’ right to form a union.

The teacher, Rhonda Hartwell, was eight months pregnant at the time of her firing and was forced to move up her scheduled delivery to ensure it occurred before her health insurance was cut off.

“It’s one thing for the school to fight the union’s legitimacy, but it’s quite another to retaliate against a union organizer who has been rewarded with performance bonuses and was pregnant. This is about as low as an anti-union administration can go,” said Kim Bobo, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice.

Hartwell had just received a $1,500 performance bonus, and the school had renewed her contract in April, inviting her to come back to teach this fall. Attorneys for the union filed an unfair labor practice charge against the employer…

Two-thirds of the teaching staff—well over the majority required by law—signed union authorization cards to be represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. Chicago ACTS also represents teachers at eight other charter schools in Chicago.

Teachers and their supporters—which include local community groups, and religious, labor and political leaders—have vowed to fight what they say is a total disregard for the law by school officials…

The school cited budget reasons for terminating Hartwell, but she and her colleagues are not buying it. They assert that CMSA is hiring new teachers, and a few days before the union organized, CMSA offered all teachers a 5 percent pay raise…

AUGUST 9, 2010: Article published in In These Times:  “Chicago Math and Science Academy: Great Academics, Ugly Unionbusting.” 
A top Chicago charter school has done great things for students, but won't recognize strong teacher support for a union...

Until last year, I only vaguely knew about the school because one of my choir members, who spoke highly of the school and its teachers, attended and graduated in its 2010 class, which had a college acceptance rate of 100 percent. But the school loomed larger when it moved from its original location to a spot about one block from my house.
Although I had been inside the school once, I had never met its leadership or teachers. Nor did I know much about its philosophy. I just knew it was doing a good job. The academy, as its website touts, is one of the top three charter schools in Chicago. It’s clearly doing something right for the students and their families. But there is some weirdness here…

What neither the Concept Schools nor the Chicago Math and Science Academy websites mention is that most of the leadership is part of something called the Gulen Movement. Despite my many years of interfaith work, I was not familiar with the Gulen Movement, although what I have read about it impresses me. But there is something weird about a charter school being so closely linked to a philosophy, the Gulen Movement, that isn’t even mentioned or referred to on its website.

When I went to the school’s board meeting on July 8, I was taken aback to see a board of directors comprised entirely of men. They all appeared of Turkish, Bosnian or Croatian descent. Although I have nothing against Turkish, Bosnian or Croatian men, it does seem that a school board serving students who are 58 percent Hispanic/Latino, 25 percent African American, 12 percent Asian and 5 percent white might be well served by some women board members and board members from ethnic backgrounds the school predominantly serves.

And now for what really worries me: In the winter of 2010, the teachers began to organize a union. They were concerned about staff turnover, which they believe is related to frustrations about having little input into decisions affecting their work and teaching. They were eager to help the school’s leadership grapple with issues around budgeting, staffing and turnover. The teachers believed that the best way for them to have the input they needed and affect the direction of the school was to organize a union.

So the teachers contacted Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), a local union of charter school teachers and staff members affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (AFT). Two-thirds of the teachers signed union authorization cards, clearly indicating strong teacher support for having a union.

On the afternoon of June 23, the teachers announced to Principal Ali Yilmaz that they were forming a union. But right before they marched into his office to deliver the message, Yilmaz, apparently tipped off about the event, fired Rhonda Hartwell…

Chicago Math and Science Academy has hired Seyfarth Shaw, a notoriously expensive union-busting law firm, to advise it in dealing with the union. Anyone who has experience in labor issues in Chicago knows the anti-union reputation of Seyfarth Shaw. It is sad that a school facing budget cuts would waste resources in hiring a law firm to help it fight having a union. But that is exactly what is happening…

…On July 29, Chicago Math and Science Academy filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board claiming it should be covered by the NLRB and not the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. This switch would mean that the school would not have to recognize the union, but would rather be able to insist on a board certified election. The principal told a community delegation I led on August 5 that he now believes the union wouldn’t have as many supporters with all the laid-off teachers. I’m sure he didn’t mean to imply that he laid off union supporters – but it sure sounded like it!

Compounding the ugly is the blatantly anti-union letter Yilmaz sent to parents. It is written in classic anti-union code – probably scripted by Seyfarth Shaw’s high-paid attorneys…

AUGUST 2010: Teachers and parents videotaped their attempt to meet with the school’s leadership.

NOVEMBER 1, 2010: The American teachers are aware of the Gulen Movement’s connection to their school. And so, with the Gulenist Niagara Foundation sponsoring a 2010 International Gulen Conference from November 11 to 13 in Chicago, they requested to meet with the Niagara Foundation’s leadership to express their concerns. They also sent letters to the conference’s participants informing them of the situation. Arise Chicago, an organization working with the teachers, distributes the link to an interview with Ali Yurtsever, a high-ranking Gulenist who is involved with both CMSA and the Niagara Foundation.


NOVEMBER 11, 2010: A demonstration at a dinner for conference participants being hosted by the Niagara Foundation was planned and then suspended when the Foundation “responded positively and affirmatively to what the union requested.”

Here’s the event notice
Join Arise Chicago, Chicago ACTS, and teachers from north-side Chicago Math and Science and Academy (CMSA) in taking action to recognize their union!
  • Today, Thursday, Nov. 11
  • 5:00 PM: Meet at Citizen Action Illinois, 27 E. Monroe, for pizza and to discuss the teachers’ situation.
  • 5:45 PM: Walk down one block to 76 E. Monroe (University Club of Chicago) to leaflet dinner guests (at a Niagara
    Foundation dinner – see below), hold a prayer vigil outside, and send a delegation inside with a letter requesting a meeting and action.
This is the press release about the suspension:

Subject: Community Pressure Success! Thurs. Teacher Action Suspended
Because of the work of Arise Chicago, Chicago ACTS, and all of you who pledged your support, the teachers at Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA) are on a path to resolving the conflict with the school.  Therefore, we are suspending tomorrow’s scheduled vigil aimed at the International Gulen Conference, sponsored by the Niagara Foundation.

Acknowledging the widespread community support, the Foundation has responded positively and affirmatively to what the union requested. Foundation leaders wrote a letter to the CMSA Board of Directors repudiating the school’s refusal to accept the NLRB ruling favoring union rights for teachers. But the letter went further and invoked Niagara Foundation's own principles of promoting dialogue, civic engagement, human dignity and workers’ rights. It cited these principles in embracing fully the right of CMSA teachers to unionize!

Foundation President Dr. Bulent Aydogan emphatically called on CMSA to:
  • Withdraw the NLRB appeal,
  • Recognize the teachers’ union,
  • Negotiate with teachers, community leaders and union leadership to resolve all outstanding issues.   
As a result, Concept Schools Inc., which operates CMSA, has agreed to meet with teachers, union and community leaders next week.  This is an exciting step toward victory for these teachers! It is the sustained support and solidarity of our community allies that makes such victories possible. Thank you to all who pledged to attend the vigil and support these courageous teachers!

NOVEMBER 15, 2010: The teachers’ “success” was announced in Labor Notes, “Chicago Charter School Teachers, with Community Support, Draw Close to Winning Union.”
A highly regarded public charter school in Chicago has leveled a series of union-busting tactics at its teachers this fall—which has been met by a community-union partnership that’s fought back…

The school is run by Concept Schools, which operates 24 other charters in the Midwest. Concept Schools is a participant in the Gülen Movement, an international, interfaith educational movement of “understanding and respect” that comes from Turkey.

But considering the progressive politics of the area, and the supposed philosophy of the school, teachers and community members were disappointed when the teachers found neither understanding nor respect when it came to their decision to organize.

When the CMSA teachers decided to begin organizing, they contacted the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. Chicago ACTS is a joint program of the Chicago Teachers Union and the state and national American Federation of Teachers. CMSA teachers and Chicago ACTS began meeting, often using nearby space at Arise Chicago, a local interfaith workers’ rights organization…

…When they approached the principal with a request to recognize their union, CMSA fired one of the lead organizing teachers (claiming budgetary reasons) and later filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that the teachers should not be able to unionize because the school was not a public employer (even though the school’s own website lists CMSA as a “public charter school”).

The NLRB rejected CMSA’s claim, ruling that the school was clearly part of the public education system, meaning its teachers and staff are public employees, who have the right to unionize. Once the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board certified the union, Chicago ACTS would be able to begin collective bargaining. Or so it seemed.

School administrators filed an appeal, and community partners stepped up their support for the teachers.

When Chicago ACTS learned that the Gülen movement was having its international conference in Chicago, teachers began strategizing how to boost their campaign. The conference was being supported by several sponsors—including the Niagara Foundation, which supports the Gülen movement.

Chicago ACTS asked Arise Chicago to support a prayer vigil and action outside the conference’s opening event on November 11. Arise Chicago activated its network to turn out supporters…

Now, Concept Schools will meet with teachers and union and community leaders during the week of November 15. The vigil was called off, as the sustained support of community allies brought victory one step closer.

FEBRUARY 11, 2011: Teachers are now holding protests in front of CMSA board members’ workplaces.


FEBRUARY 14, 2011: Article published in People’s World, "'Stop breaking the law' protest tells Chicago charter school." 
CHICAGO - If Sulejman Dizdarevic were peeking out the window of his swanky law offices on Feb. 11, he surely would have been startled. There staring at him from the opposite side of the street, with bulging eyes, long nose and whiskers, chomping on a cigar and holding sacks of cash, was a giant, ugly rat.

The inflatable rat was erected by supporters of teachers at Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy in front of Dizdarevic's office, because he sits on the board of directors of the charter school that they accuse of subverting teacher's rights to form a union and violating Illinois labor law by refusing to negotiate a contract. Dizdarevic is an attorney at Belongia, Shapiro and Franklin.

"Regardless of the anti-union reasons motivating these charters, we are finding fear of transparency is the key issue," said James Thindwa, an organizer for Chicago ACTS, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and now represents teachers at eight charter schools.

"In almost every case, we have discovered that schools have more money than they claim. Teachers at Civitas were told there was no money for a raise, but when an audit was done, $2.5 million was found lying around," said Thindwa…

"CMSA are saying this is a private school, not subject to state law," said Thindwa. "They walked away from the bargaining table despite the fact that this union is certified under state law. What CMSA is saying is they don't recognize the state."

Charter schools are covered under Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board and employees are required to get the support of 50 percent plus one to gain union recognition. CMSA refused to accept this and took their case to the National Labor Relations Board, claiming they were a private company not covered under the law…

Thindwa said every board member of CMSA would be targeted for pressure because they were personally responsible for the downward spiral the school finds itself in. They started with Dizdarevic; a delegation of community, clergy and academics delivered a letter to his office demanding management comply with state law.

"We told him we are not going away," said Martha Biondi, a professor at Northwestern University. "We are community members concerned about the right of teachers to organize a union, especially under the law of Illinois. It's outrageous that they are flouting the law of Illinois."…

List of board members appearing on the CMSA website on 11/9/2010
  • Yavuz Burak Canbolat - board president
  • [Dzafer] Jeff Kulenovic - secretary
  • Ali Yurtsever - board member
  • Murat Surucu - board member
  • Edip Bektas - treasurer
  • Hanefi Tiryaki - board member
  • Suleman F. Dizdarevic - board member

List of board members obtained from the school’s first Form 990 in 2003 (EIN 450532536)

  • Salim Ucan, principal
  • Clarissa Cerda, president
  • Taner Ertekin, secretary
  • Faruk Guder, treasurer
  • Leticia Herrera – member
  • Donald Jones – member
  • Ji Yong Lee – member
  • William C. McGaghie – member

Please note how the board made a transition from 3 out of 8 Turkish/Turkic board members in 2003 to 7 out of 7 in 2010. This pattern has been observed at other Gulen charter schools.


For what they're worth, here are excerpts from messages sent to me from two different anonymous people:

Person #1:
…From what I can gather, the American teachers simply want to have an equal say and equal treatment.  I believe that they are tired of having to carry the educational burden of the Turkish staff.  Again I assume this is the case within other Gulen schools, the American teachers at CMSA are required to carry a full load while the Turkish staff are permitted to have fewer classes with fewer students.  The American teachers are further required to put in more hours, while the Turkish staff are permitted to leave or choose rather not to spend extra time with the students at school.  Lastly, the teachers are tired of having the administration dictate what is best in the classroom…

Person #2 (Re the teachers' November "victory")
Based on my experience with Gulenists, they [the teachers] are premature in declaring victory.  All the school has done is agreed to meet with them.

I have also attended meetings with Gulenists, so I know how they go.  They talk and talk.  At the end of it, they do what they wanted to do all along.

The Gulenists made this conciliatory gesture to avoid the embarrassment of the vigil in front of the conference, which would have been very damaging for them.  Having got what they needed, they won't want to concede any more.

The teachers are going to be very disappointed.

…Their entire modus operandi is based on abusing teachers.  I hope to be proved wrong, but my belief is that they will never give in on this one.

Instead, they will offer the teachers some meaningless concession, which they will then retract in a couple of months anyway…

Clueless America reminds me Gulliver asleep on the beach, as the Lilliputians proceed to tie him up tighter than tight. The Gulen movement has now targeted thirty states for their charter schools. Only Connecticut, Hawaii, and Oregon have managed to keep them out, and they probably were not even aware that the charter school applicants were connected to the Gulen movement and its school-opening project.


Mr. Duncan,

What is your opinion about the rapid expansion of U.S. charter schools connected to the Gulen Movement's worldwide ambitions? You certainly must be aware of this phenomenon! A statement to your taxpaying members of the public who are unknowingly funding this situation would be welcome asap. Thanks for your response. -- P.P.

* The first Gulen charter school for Minnesota (and a new Concept School Inc. school), the Minnesota School of Science, was authorized by Minneapolis Public Schools in the spring of 2010, and is due to open in the fall of 2011.

Minnesota School of Science
Location: TBD/Opening fall 2011
Ph: 612.567.7281
Grades: K-8 (accepting K-5 only for fall 2011)
Contact: Ahmet Akyol
The Minnesota School of Science (MSS) is a college preparatory public charter school serving students in grades K-5 and will add one grade per year up to eighth grade. The program implements a proven, successful educational model created by Concept Schools...


The Perimeter Primate said...,0,6571894.story

"Charter school says it's private, though it gets millions in tax dollars: Teachers see an attempt to stop them from unionizing;" February 22, 2010; Chicago Tribune


"A Chicago charter school that has received more than $23 million in public money since opening in 2004 is arguing that it is a private institution, a move teachers say is designed to block them from forming a union.

"In papers filed with the National Labor Relations Board, attorneys for the Chicago Math and Science Academy on the city's North Side say the school should be exempt from an Illinois law that grants employees of all public schools the right to form unions for contract negotiations.

"The school of about 600 students is appealing an unfavorable decision by a regional director of the national labor board. Academy officials say charter schools don't have the governmental ties that characterize public schools, such as government-appointed leadership or controls over wages, hours and working conditions. In other words, they say, the same freedoms over personnel and policy that many credit to charter schools' success are also indicative of their independence..."

The Perimeter Primate said...

Chicago Charter School Fights Unionization

Associated Press

"Chicago - A Chicago charter school that received public money is now arguing it is a private institution that does not have to abide by state law giving workers the right to unionize.

"The Chicago Math and Science Academy has received $23 million in public funds since opening in 2004. It is appealing a decision by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board rejecting the academy's arguments.

"Records show, more than 80 percent of the school's annual $5 million operating budget comes from Chicago Public Schools, with the rest being state, federal and private money.

"Academy attorney James Powers argues public funding alone is not the mark of a public institution. He says more important is that charter schools are established by private citizens and operate with little government input."