Unionized teachers at Chicago’s charter schools are one step closer to unifying with their counterparts in the city’s public school district, a historic move that would strengthen opposition to austerity and neoliberal education reform.
Last week, members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS) — the American Federation of Teachers local representing about 1,000 educators at 32 charter schools — voted to merge their local with the nearly 30,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).
The unification vote passed with the approval of 84 percent of voting members, ChiACTS said. Before the merger can move forward, CTU members will also have to vote on the measure this fall.
“Our overwhelming vote for unity affirms that charter educators are educators first, and servants of the public with a shared commitment to the futures of our students across the city,” ChiACTS president Chris Baehrend told In These Times.
Charter lobbyists attempted to dissuade ChiACTS members from approving the merger by describing the CTU as “anti-charter school.” But union leaders dispute this characterization.
“CTU has been very clear that they do not have a problem with our schools. They have a problem with the charter model of public school management,” Baehrend told In These Times.
Noting that ChiACTS teachers nearly had to go on strike three times since last October in order to win fair contracts, Baehrend added that even charter educators “have got lots of problems with the charter model of school governance. It’s an extra layer of unaccountable bureaucracy between us and the resources we need in our classrooms.”
Though CTU undoubtedly opposes the expansion of charter schools, as demonstrated by the union’s successful effort to win a moratorium on the opening of new charters last fall, Baehrend said ChiACTS shares this goal.
“Charter proliferation does not help the charter schools that already exist. It actually spreads the pot of money more thinly,” he explained. “We’ve been seeing the nasty effects of it lately. This year, we’ve had budget cuts, layoffs and enrollment decline in the majority of the schools we represent.”
Since ChiACTS was launched in 2009, it has frequently partnered with CTU. Members of both locals often come to each other’s rallies and discuss shared concerns through a joint committee. The CTU also supports contract negotiations and enforcement for ChiACTS through a 2015 service agreement.
Baehrend told In These Times the decision to formally merge the two locals came in response to the election of Donald Trump. Realizing that education and workers’ rights were under threat, leaders and activists from both locals felt it was the right time to pursue a formal merger.
“The answer to every crisis labor has ever faced has been more solidarity and more collective action,” he said. “The boss always wants to divide us one way or another and we know that’s because they don’t want us to be strong.”
“If you go into a charter school, it doesn’t look an awful lot different from a district school, in terms of the classroom,” Baehrend explained. “Schools are good. Schools are essentially teachers and students. ‘Charter’ is something that happens outside of the school. ‘Charter’ is something that happens in how budgets get spent, in who has control over decisions.”
In addition to unifying with CTU, ChiACTS also hopes to build more unity among charter teachers. Nine out of 10 ChiACTS contracts are set to expire at the end of the next school year, which the union sees as an opportunity for educators at multiple charter schools to come together and fight for common goals at the same time.
Baehrend said that he and other ChiACTS activists look to the CTU and its anti-austerity, rank-and-file politics as a model of “social justice unionism” and “bargaining for the public good.”
“If this merger happens, I will be so proud to be a Chicago Teachers Union member and try to not just maintain, but extend that tradition and choose more ambitious fights for the families we serve,” he said. “What better union to join?”
Jeff Schuhrke has been a Working In These Times contributor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master’s in Labor Studies from UMass Amherst. Follow him on Twitter: @JeffSchuhrke