Union Negotiations FAQ

Updated: March 10, 2021

Press Room: Old Town School Statement Regarding the March 10, 2021 Press Conference and Open Letter To Administrators

The Old Town School of Folk Music is the largest community school of the arts in the U.S. and a non-profit organization. Our mission is to celebrate American music and global cultures while providing excellent music, dance and arts programming to students and patrons of all ages.

The Old Town School of Folk Music and it’s faculty union (the Old Town Teachers Organization or OTTO) are currently working together to negotiate the first collective bargaining agreement in this organization's history. The faculty voted to organize and seek representation from the Illinois Federation of Teachers union on January 16, 2019. Since that time, the Old Town School leadership and board have recognized their decision. The School received a demand to bargain in September of 2019. Negotiations began in October of 2019, and both parties are committed to making Old Town School of Folk Music a great place to work and visit.

The School strives to put the student and visitor experience at the forefront of all of its decisions, and we appreciate all that our talented teachers' contribute to our community. We have compiled a list of frequently asked questions to provide an update to our community of students, staff, and donors. We strive to have open, transparent negotiations and welcome our community’s input throughout this process.

How often are the administration and union leadership meeting for negotiations and how long do you expect the process to take?

We are currently meeting together every other week for four hours, and we make ourselves available for interim conversations as necessary. It typically takes more than a year before a first contract is reached as building the framework of a contract is time consuming. First-time negotiations are often challenging and our organization is quite unique which also adds to the complexity of the process. As we started negotiations in October 2019, this process is proving not to be an exception to the rule and both sides still have outstanding proposals that are being discussed.

We began work with a mediator as of March 2, 2021. The administration had requested mediation in early 2020 but that request was not accepted by the Union until December, 2020, and the mediation process began last week. A mediator is a third-party expert whose job is to help facilitate the parties in their discussions with the aim of helping the parties reach an agreement. The mediator is employed by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (www.fmcs.gov), a tax-payer funded federal agency.

Of course, negotiating during the pandemic provides its own unique sets of challenges as well as adding new issues that we’ve needed to discuss.

The negotiations process seems slow, what is taking so long to get a contract?

Because this is the first contract, it will take longer to get to an agreement than working on a renewal, extension or follow-on contract. The fact that we are so unlike most other organizations (having only part-time employees in the union), we have few examples upon which we can draw. Our contract is unique due to the unique nature of Old Town School, and that adds time too.

The complexity is increased due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, we have spent significant time negotiating an agreement to cover pandemic operations as well as an extension. This agreement provided an allowance for teachers who are working from home. A great deal of time has been spent educating union leadership on the finances and operations for the organization, particularly as the pandemic has impacted the landscape.

The negotiations process is complex and can be time consuming. The School is committed to working together with the union to develop an equitable agreement that works for all parties. We also recognize that it may take a considerable amount of time for the union to secure agreement to a proposed contract by over 240 part-time teachers.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted negotiations?

We have been in regular ongoing meetings with the union throughout the pandemic. COVID-19 has provided some unpredictable and significant hurdles that impacted our abilities to meet and plan as well as our ability to project the financial conditions of the organization, but we have subsequently provided the union with an overview of the financial picture. It was important to ensure everyone at the table understands the financial picture before moving forward with the negotiations of the larger economic proposals.

Is the Board or administration anti-union?

Not at all. The School recognizes and supports the teachers’ right to organize and hasn’t tried to influence their decision either way. It was important for all of the teachers to have a voice in the process. Building a strong partnership with teachers will only enhance the work of the School. We are open to new solutions and committed to making Old Town School a great place to work and visit. A first-time contract requires that we establish a sustainable balance between administration, faculty and student needs.

Additionally, while we see eye-to-eye on many things, share the same basic values and view of the organization’s mission and purpose, there are issues upon which we do not agree. In every case so far, we recognize the union’s interest and respect their position, but we have to work through those things to find a way forward.

What are the main points of negotiation?

We have worked through many of the foundational elements of the negotiations so far as well as have been working on agreements regarding pandemic operations. The current phase is a little more difficult as it includes compensation and benefits, which are mandatory subjects of bargaining and typically take longer to negotiate. Other items that we are discussing include decision-making with administrative and faculty roles. Both sides understand each other even if we cannot agree on the particulars at this time. We are committed to work together to get an agreement that works for all parties involved.

Is the Board of Directors involved in negotiations?

The Board is not involved in negotiating the contract; members of the administration are actively engaged in that process. Negotiations between the administration and the union are ongoing in a thoughtful and respectful manner. Our Board members are not involved in daily school operations but are consulted on issues where their specific expertise and experiences can help the school solve problems.

Can faculty serve as voting board members? Are they welcome to attend board meetings?

Having teachers and other staff, including the CEO, on a not-for-profit board raises substantial conflict of interest concerns and is therefore not a best practice. The majority of well run nonprofits, school boards and other organizations follow this practice. That being said, we value our teachers’ input in decisions and include them in working groups, Board committees and one-on-one discussions. Union leadership is invited join board meetings and we hope to formally define an ongoing participatory role for faculty and staff in the future.

Are teachers included in decision-making?

Yes. The organization has created a series of working groups on many topics related to the growth and sustainability of Old Town School of Folk Music. This process began in early 2019 and union members have been involved in every working group since we started, as well as members of the administrative staff, students, members, community leaders and board members.

Teachers have an important role and valuable insights. We want their participation alongside that of program managers, department heads, volunteers and students. We keep these parties in mind when making decisions, no matter how large or small those decisions may seem.

What is the administration’s stance on teacher compensation and raises? How about administrative staff compensation?

Wages are a mandatory subject of bargaining and it typically takes a year or longer to finalize a first contract. The School is prohibited from making changes to mandatory subjects of bargaining until a full agreement is reached and ratified. We are still in the process of discussing and seeking agreement on many items related to compensation and benefits during negotiations.

We recognize the financial challenge that 2021 will likely bring to the organization and we want to find a good balance between faculty and administrative staff needs as well as ensure that our students are successful and can continue to afford classes. We are taking a progressive, student-centered approach to planning wherever possible. Administrators’ salaries, including that of our CEO, are based in large part on the salaries for people in comparable positions at similarly-sized non-profit arts organizations. During the pandemic, administrators, including the CEO, have taken salary reductions to assist the organization in weathering the pandemic economy. Additionally, a number of staff members have been furloughed or have had their hours reduced.

I have additional questions - who can I contact?

For additional questions, please contact negotiations@oldtownschool.org.