Urban Prep "college signing day"
Here, young men from Urban Prep take part in “college signing day” at Daley Plaza in May 2014. Union members say more than a dozen teachers were unfairly fired in June 2015 for their union activities. Credit: Photo by Marc Monaghan

Urban Prep Academies fired 17 teachers from its three campuses last week, a move that some union activists say was tied to their efforts to organize a labor union.

The firings — which represent about one of every six teachers in Urban Prep’s three campuses — come less than a month after a majority of teachers voted to join the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

“For a school that touts that they want stability in their students’ lives, they seem awfully willing to destabilize an entire school network,” says Matthias Muschal, who was terminated from his post as English teacher at the Bronzeville campus last Friday.

Muschal says he was told his dismissal was due to insubordination — specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration. But he believes the real motive was his active participation in union organizing– Muschal, a six-year veteran at Urban Prep, was one of two teachers from the charter network who spoke out in favor of a union drive at a press conference in City Hall in February.

In a statement, Urban Prep’s chief operating officer, Evan Lewis, did not explain why the firings took place. But he said “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive.”

“As we’ve said from the beginning, we respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative,” Lewis wrote. “Throughout this entire process, Urban Prep has respected that right, and in doing so, would never dismiss a teacher for trying to organize […] In fact, many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

Under federal labor law, it’s illegal for employers to take retaliatory actions such as firings against workers for union activities.

Unfair labor charges

ChiACTS has filed unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over the firings at Urban Prep — one of the oldest and the only all-male charter network in the city.

Teachers, union activists and former Urban Prep students held a protest outside a monthly meeting at the charter network on Thursday afternoon, and some of them spoke up during the meeting to ask for a reversal of the firings, according to ChiACTS.

Earlier this month, a majority of teachers and other staff at Urban Prep voted in favor of unionizing. The tally was not immediately final because there were enough contested votes to turn the election. Union organizers said they’d already been informed by the NLRB that it had ruled out enough ballots to make the win determinative.  An NLRB spokeswoman says the vote has not yet been certified.

One of the teachers who helped lead the union drive is no longer at Urban Prep — although it’s not because he was fired. David Woo, an English teacher at the Englewood campus, quit last Friday in order to pursue a doctoral degree in educational policy.

“The decision was unrelated on some level to my union work,” Woo says. “But after I started actively pursuing establishing or helping to establish a union, I knew my job would be on the line and started thinking about my options.”

He says last week’s firings of many of his colleagues have underscored, for him, the need for due process when it comes to job terminations.

“Some people were given no verbal reasons, some were handed letters,” he says. “There was no consistency because there’s no set contract.”

Melissa Sanchez is a reporter for The Chicago Reporter. Email her at msanchez@chicagoreporter.com and follow her on Twitter at @msanchezMIA.

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