Dan Knishkowy looks at the campaign among Old Town School of Folk Music’s teachers for a collective agreement and seats on the board. Image copyright Dannygutters via.
On the walls of Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music hangs a photo of Joe Hill; the school’s songbook is filled with Woody Guthrie’s union songs. Yet when teachers began organizing for better wages and a voice in decision making, they were met with hostility and retaliation from the administration.
In January 2019, the Old Town Teachers Organization (OTTO) voted 141-7 to unionize, becoming the first collection of teaching artists to be recognized by the American Federation of Teachers. After 18 months of bargaining for their first contract, OTTO began working with a professional mediator as they seek a more equitable wage structure, lowered eligibility for benefits, and intellectual property ownership of remote lessons created during the pandemic.
Outside of the bargaining table, OTTO continues to organize with Arise Chicago, a faith-based labor organization which was instrumental in the early formation of the union. Arise is one of the driving forces behind the union’s now public campaign for “shared governance.” The union would like four voting seats on a 30-person board of directors, giving “voice and equity to the people on the ground every day that make Old Town the vibrant place that it is.”
In a press conference on March 10, the union unveiled an open letter to the board, which included support from local arts and labor organizations. High-profile musicians like Jeff Tweedy have signed on, alongside The Chicago Federation of Labor, the Chicago Federation of Music, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the Chicago DSA Labor Branch.
“Democracy in the workplace” the letter reads, “is a foundational and cherished idea for teachers and students drawn to a school that arose from the pro-worker legacies of Woody Guthrie and Ella Jenkins, Bess Lomax Hawes and Win Stracke. The Old Town School of Folk Music should be a shining example of democratic governance for arts organizations everywhere.”
Frank Hamilton, who co-founded the school in 1957, also signed on to the teacher’s demands and shared a video testimonial at the press conference. “The teachers really are the lifeblood of the school,” Hamilton said. “Their demands are not unreasonable, and everyone stands to benefit.”
The idea of shared governance as mutually beneficial was a theme throughout the press conference. According to union member Sam Cantor, it “provides continuity so that the board is not isolated from instructors.” One student, who’s been learning at Old Town for over two decades, believes that teacher representation is necessary for “the broader interests of the entire student community.”
Historically, shared governance has garnered mix support among the labor movement, as blurring the lines between management and employees can make organizing strategy confusing. Forcing the administration to acquiesce to this particular demand will require the union to display sufficient power without appearing too antagonistic, as shared governance is a permissive demand that the administration is not mandated to bargain over in good faith.
The union argues that having a seat at the table would allow them to make their voices heard earlier, louder, and with greater context. They cite the proposed sale of one of Old Town’s historic buildings in 2018 as an organizing touchstone. When the former Executive Director of the school, Bau Graves, announced plans to sell the space at 909 West Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park, teachers were blindsided. Concerned that less classroom space would equate to less teaching hours (a minimal threshold is required to be benefit-eligible), teachers hosted a joint rally with students, who were also facing increased class prices. The administration ultimately reconsidered following the public backlash. Chris Walz, former OTTO president, notes that “if teachers had been in on the conversation earlier on, that conclusion would have been reached first.”
What makes OTTO a particularly interesting case study is that they sit at the intersection of a different industries and organizing models. The Old Town School is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, while OTTO is a certified union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (Local #909 IFT-AFT). Although organized as teachers, OTTO’s membership is also comprised of musicians, many of whom are performers and recording artists in their own right.
Any campaign’s reliance on public support can prove challenging, as it is both difficult to predict and to sustain. Tactically, it might make sense for the union, given their prior success with the Armitage building. The recent boom of publicized union drives at non-profit organizations with the Nonprofit Professional Employees Union (NPEU) can provide additional encouragement. According to Hamilton Nolan at In These Times, “the NPEU has won voluntary recognition in every single union campaign it has organized… [reflecting] skillful use of the fact that the management of most progressive nonprofits don’t want to be seen as anti-union (even if they wish that the union didn’t exist).”
While it’s clear that the administration and board at Old Town School have anti-union sentiments—they have hired the same law firm that represented the city against the Chicago Teachers Union—they are reticent to appear anti-union publicly. The school’s ability to attract new students, maintain the ones they’ve had for decades, and continue to host high profile, left-leaning musicians requires them to tread carefully. This could provide OTTO with leverage they would otherwise not have at the bargaining table.
That being said, winning recognition is simpler than securing a fair first contract. “At progressive non-profits,” Nolan writes, “the decision of how intense and public to make any labor battle is a tricky one. Unlike at regular companies, many of the employees in the union may feel torn between protecting the organization’s reputation, which is valuable for serving a purpose they believe in, and protecting their own labor rights.”
It is rare for non-profits to have employee or union representation on their board, and even more so for this to include voting seats. The union at the Economic Policy Institute, for example, has a seat on their board, but it is a non-voting position. In response to OTTO’s press conference, Old Town School’s CEO Jim Newcomb stressed the need for an independent and separate board “that is able to thoughtfully oversee strategic and financial decisions.” Speaking to the Chicago Sun, he instead suggested “working groups” for teachers to “[look] into and [solve] specific problems.”
Working groups, of course, are tried and true practices that bosses use to dilute worker demands. The Massachusetts Nurses Association, for example, has decried the practice, arguing that “employers create these bodies…to remove issues from the negotiations…into a forum in which they dominate the decision-making process. Merely having the opportunity to ‘have input’ or to ‘make suggestions’ or to ‘share your ideas and opinions’ is not real ‘shared governance.’ In these settings, if you make a suggestion and management doesn’t like it, what recourse do you have? The answer is you have none.”
OTTO has made it clear that “working groups” would be insufficient, but this raises the question of whether bargaining and shared governance are incompatible. While shared governance might provide the union with a seat at the table, might it empower their employer to circumvent negotiations? Would it require the union to become more conciliatory in bargaining? Crucially, would it remove the threat, and therefore value, of a potential strike?
The model that OTTO envisions, however, goes beyond simply having input—by demanding voting seats, they aim to influence decisions in unprecedented ways. The union argues that they are uniquely placed to understand “the mission of the school”, and also experience the most significant “impact of board level policies.” They are not the only ones impacted, however. Administrative decisions to decrease course offerings or increase class size can affect students as well. Despite the organizing challenges raised above, OTTO maintains that voting seats are necessary to protect the shared interests of the entire Old Town community.
Recognizing solidarity with their students is also a strategic boost for the union, who view Old Town as a transformative artistic space, rather than a transactional learning environment. While teachers may be the lifeblood of the school, returning students keep the lights on—a coalition holds more power to influence the board’s decision making in bargaining. Because Old Town also functions as a concert venue and community space, having past performers like Tweedy sign on to the union’s demands shows that there is an investment in Old Town’s artistic legacy that extends beyond the classroom.
What makes OTTO’s demands relatively unique is that they center creative control on the job. Earlier this year, American Theatre ran an op-ed arguing that the contemporary board model at arts institutions is a broken one. “It seems odd,” playwright Michael Bobbit notes, “to hire an artist or arts professional, then take away ownership of possibly their main assets—creativity, vision, imagination.” As arts workers reimagine what administrative boards might look like, “we have to consider that nothing…be considered sacred, beyond question, or unchangeable.” This includes current models, where boards are unaccountable to workers, but also traditional labor orthodoxy that may dismiss shared governance as being incompatible with bargaining.
The value of decision making in arts industries is a particularly timely topic, given that a number of high-profile organizations have recently unionized (including Meow Wolf, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Mass MoCA). On April 15, The Association of International Comedy Educators, who represent the teaching artists at Chicago’s The Second City, voted overwhelmingly in favor of unionizing, by a count of 104-6.
By seeking board representation, Cantor sees potential in OTTO’s campaign to set new precedents:
“This coincides with a rise of teacher union activity across the country over the last few years. It is a moment to democratize and transform arts organizations and education institutions across the country, and have our work be one small part of that larger transformation. We feel that the Old Town School union can show what teaching artists can do as organized workers.”
Creative work often blurs the lines between labor and love, making exploitation subtle and organizing more difficult. To disrupt a board model seen as “out of touch” may ultimately require new and untested organizing models, particularly for a union intent on advocating as much for a wider arts community as for their own interests on the job.
Dan Knishkowy is a musician, writer, and student of labor studies.