Otsfm logo

Union Negotiations FAQ

Updated: May 20, 2022

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 its 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 meet every other week for four hours, and we have made ourselves available for additional interim conversations. It typically takes longer to complete a first contract as building the framework of a contract is time consuming. First-time negotiations are often challenging, and because our organization is quite unique, the process has added layers of complexity. As we started negotiations in October 2019, this process is proving not to be an exception to the rule.

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 is ongoing. 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.

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 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 200 part-time teachers. The parties have made substantial progress, particularly over the last several months, and we are hopeful that we will be able to fully wrap-up these negotiations very soon.

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.

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. Management has been extremely transparent and open, spending a great deal of time working with union leadership to share the details of the School’s finances and operations for the organization, particularly as the pandemic has impacted the landscape.

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.

The administration has also worked closely with Union leadership to come to an agreement on the costs of each provision of the Union’s economic proposal. This will help the parties come to a fair agreement that is also fiscally responsible for the long-term health of the organization.

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 similar institutions follow this organizational structure. That being said, we value our teachers’ input in decisions and include them in working groups, department meetings, Board committees and one-on-one discussions. Union leadership is invited to join board meetings and we formally are defining an ongoing participatory role for faculty and staff within the organization through formalized committees. In addition, a group of Board members has regularly been meeting with OTTO leadership.

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. They can also give feedback in faculty and department meetings.

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?

We are in the process of discussing and seeking agreement on many items related to compensation and benefits. To that end, the School has spent ten months working through a costing model with members of the union negotiating team. On May 24, 2022 the management and union negotiating teams met to try to finalize all economic matters through a 14-hour process called affinity bargaining. During this extra-long session The School and the union made considerable progress on economic items but will be meeting again in early June to hopefully finalize all economic items.

The School is taking a fair, progressive, market-based approach to negotiating compensation and benefits. The School has been extraordinarily open, sharing detailed financial and operational information with the bargaining team.

Ultimately, it is the School’s goal to ensure that we have a compensation and benefits model that serves our faculty and staff’s needs and ensures that our students can continue to afford classes.

The School’s current compensation and benefits model exceeds that of comparable businesses and is in the top quintile or better in most cases. OTS pay rates and hours calculations are based on contact hours, the industry standard for compensation and benefits of part-time and full-time teachers. Contact hours are determined by the hours that instructors are actively engaged in planned instruction with students, and that rate includes things like lesson lesson preparation, passing periods, and answering student questions.

In addition to providing competitive pay rates, for decades the school has provided health insurance and PTO to faculty who meet eligibility requirements, as well as offering voluntary benefits such as dental and life insurance, 403 (b) retirement accounts, and discounts on classes, concerts and store purchases to all employees regardless of hours. Sick time is provided to part-time employees in accordance with the Chicago and Cook County guidelines.

Finally, management took an unusual step during negotiations and proposed and secured agreement to increase wages for faculty, effective July 23, 2021.

What is the next step in negotiations?

As we have completed negotiations on almost all non-economic issues as of May 17, 2022 – we are approaching the conclusion of negotiations.

In a daylong session held on May 24, 2022, The School and the union met to discuss all of the economic questions (wages, benefits, etc) via the affinity bargaining process. The affinity process is intended to help the teams work through the complex issues of wages and benefits with a mediator. The process allows the parties to jointly resolve issues by working with a shared understanding of the costs of proposals and their impact on the school and tuition rates. The School and the union made considerable progress on economic items but will be meeting again in early June to hopefully finalize all economic items.

Once negotiations have concluded the School and the union will move forward with ratifying the final agreement within their respective constituencies.

I have additional questions - who can I contact?

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