‘You gotta go down and join the union’

Labor activist and musician Pete Seeger would be proud.

On Jan. 16, faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where Seeger’s banjo is displayed as a tribute to his musical legacy and labor activism, voted overwhelmingly to join the union. The new unit, the Old Town Teachers Organization, will include 200 teaching artists.

School of Folk Music organizes with IFT

“You gotta go down and join the union,” and “You can’t scare me, I’m sticking with the union,” they sang as they demonstrated and later  celebrated the final tally late Wednesday night.

“We are thrilled! Today the teachers of the Old Town School of Folk Music have honored the institution’s rich history by voting to form a union with the Illinois Federation of Teachers,” says Lindsay Weinberg, an Old Town School teacher of piano, guitar and voice for 13 years. “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. 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. It is because of our commitment to the OTSFM mission and the culture and history of the American folk music tradition that we are taking this step.”

“Sixty years after the school’s founding, a small group of teachers wondered if organizing themselves would be the best way to help that school and the teachers move forward toward the next 60 years,” says Chris Walz, who has taught guitar, banjo and mandolin for 22 years. “Tonight’s union vote makes it official. I am so encouraged by the number of true believers in the teaching staff who voted for our union in order to benefit not only themselves and their working conditions, but the overall health and future of the Old Town School of Folk Music. We look forward to working together with the administration toward our shared, positive future.”

Faculty at the Old Town School began organizing in November 2017, working with Arise Chicago and the IFT. Nearly 70 percent signed union cards indicating they wanted to call a vote. They’ve been disgruntled for several years, according to organizers, as school administrators failed to address their concerns about their lack of agency at the same time they drifted away from the school’s original mission.

Then, last October, the board of directors announced they were selling the beloved historic home where the school has operated for 62 years. Faculty, students, parents and community pushed back, and the possible sale has been delayed.

According to the school’s website, the Old Town School of Folk Music teaches and celebrates music rooted in the traditions of diverse American and global communities, with hundreds of accredited music, dance, theater and visual arts courses and workshops. With deep roots in folk music and social justice, having a union is a no-brainer—though when members of the nascent Old Town Teachers Organization went to administrators requesting voluntarily recognition, administrators deferred, preferring to go through the National Labor Relations Board before dealing with the union in good faith.

“Old Town School of Folk Music is one of the greatest cultural institutions in one of the greatest cities in America,” says Daniel Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and a high school English teacher. “When it started, Studs Terkel, Pete Seeger and others were labor organizers, traveling the country, singing for the rights of working people. There’s no better place to form a union than here and now. On behalf of the 100,000 members of the IFT, we proudly welcome them to our union and look forward to many years fighting and singing together for the future we all deserve.”

[Virginia Myers and Illinois Federation of Teachers Communications staff]