In a Historic First, the Chicago Teachers Union and Charter School Teachers Have Joined Forces

Jeff Schuhrke February 1, 2018

The merger is good news for unionized teachers and bad news for privatization advocates. (John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images)

With the approval of a his­toric union merg­er, teach­ers in Chica­go are posi­tion­ing them­selves to mount a greater chal­lenge to pri­va­ti­za­tion and austerity.

On Mon­day, the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) announced that its mem­bers had vot­ed in favor of amal­ga­mat­ing with the Chica­go Alliance of Char­ter Teach­ers and Staff (Chi­ACTS), which, since 2009, has orga­nized about 1,000 edu­ca­tors at over 30 char­ter school campuses.

While coop­er­a­tion between union­ized edu­ca­tors at char­ters and dis­trict schools in the Unit­ed States is com­mon, this is the first known case in which teach­ers from both types of schools have merged into a sin­gle union local.

The move was approved by 70 per­cent of vot­ing mem­bers, accord­ing to the CTU. In a sim­i­lar vote last June, 84 per­cent of Chi­ACTS mem­bers endorsed the merger.

These results are the out­come of a lengthy dia­logue among mem­bers,” CTU Vice Pres­i­dent Jesse Sharkey said in a state­ment. We’ve declared that we’re stronger togeth­er in one big union. We’ve embraced our com­mon strug­gle to sup­port our work­ers, our stu­dents, their par­ents and our neighborhoods.”

Edu­ca­tors in dis­trict and char­ter school share the same chal­lenges and the same com­mit­ment to our stu­dents and the pub­lic good,” said Chi­ACTS Pres­i­dent Chris Baehrend. Togeth­er we can more effec­tive­ly fight for more fair, more equi­table fund­ing for our stu­dents and their needs, espe­cial­ly for our under­served Black and Brown stu­dents and their families.”

Illi­nois Net­work of Char­ter Schools Pres­i­dent Andrew Broy — who laments that Chica­go has become the epi­cen­ter of char­ter union orga­niz­ing in the coun­try”— attacked the merg­er as a pow­er grab” and hos­tile takeover” by the CTU, despite the thumbs-up by a major­i­ty of Chi­ACTS members.

Lead­ers of both union locals say they don’t have a prob­lem with char­ter schools per se, but rather they oppose the pro­lif­er­a­tion of the char­ter sys­tem of man­age­ment, where pri­vate com­pa­nies admin­is­ter schools with pub­lic money.

Char­ter schools are here; they’re not going any­where,” CTU Pres­i­dent Karen Lewis explained when the merg­er was first pro­posed last spring. It’s the man­age­ment com­pa­nies we have the issues with, not the char­ter teach­ers, not the stu­dents, not the parents.”

Baehrend told In These Times last year that pri­vate man­age­ment com­pa­nies rep­re­sent an extra lay­er of unac­count­able bureau­cra­cy” in char­ter schools, block­ing teach­ers from the resources we need in our class­rooms.” Char­ter pro­lif­er­a­tion does not help the char­ter schools that already exist,” he con­tin­ued. It actu­al­ly spreads the pot of mon­ey more thin­ly,” lead­ing to bud­get cuts, lay­offs and low­er enrollments.

Over the past two decades, Chica­go has seen a dra­mat­ic expan­sion in the num­ber of char­ters, while dis­trict schools have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed and shut down. In 2013, May­or Rahm Emanuel presided over the shut­ter­ing of 50 schools, one of the largest mass school clos­ings in history.

More recent­ly, Emanuel announced plans to close four dis­trict schools in the city’s pre­dom­i­nate­ly African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hood of Engle­wood, a move the CTU is cur­rent­ly fighting.

Union lead­ers hope that by orga­niz­ing teach­ers and staff at char­ter schools, and giv­ing them a voice to advo­cate for more resources through col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, the char­ter mod­el will become less attrac­tive to investors and pub­lic officials.

Between Octo­ber 2016 and May 2017, Chi­ACTS mem­bers vot­ed over­whelm­ing­ly to strike at three dif­fer­ent schools in order to win fair con­tracts. Each time, the work stop­pages were nar­row­ly avert­ed by last-minute agree­ments with management.

The local is cur­rent­ly run­ning cam­paigns to union­ize teach­ers and staff at Namaste Char­ter School on Chicago’s South Side and at Noble — a net­work of 18 char­ter high schools spread across the city. If the lat­ter is suc­cess­ful­ly orga­nized, it would be the largest union­ized char­ter sys­tem in the country.

Mean­while, in its most recent con­tract, approved in Novem­ber 2016, the CTU suc­cess­ful­ly nego­ti­at­ed a cap on the open­ing of new char­ters schools.

As laid out by a ser­vice agree­ment signed in 2015, the CTU already assists Chi­ACTS with con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, and mem­bers of both locals have fre­quent­ly sup­port­ed one anoth­er at ral­lies and on pick­et lines.

With the uni­fi­ca­tion of the two unions into a sin­gle local, Chi­ACTS mem­bers will main­tain their exist­ing con­tracts with char­ter schools and will elect rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the CTU’s House of Del­e­gates and Exec­u­tive Board.

Sharkey says the merg­er isn’t a mag­ic bul­let, but it does might­i­ly strength­en our hand against char­ter oper­a­tors,” mak­ing teach­ers bet­ter pre­pared to chal­lenge Rahm, Rauner and Trump when they attack pub­lic edu­ca­tion and its workers.”

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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