Charter School Educators Just Voted to Join the Most Militant Teachers’ Union in the Country

Jeff Schuhrke

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union march to the heart of the financial district on June 9, 2015. (Scott L/flickr)

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

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