In a move sure to worry neoliberal education reformers, unionized charter school teachers in Chicago are voting this week on whether to formally join forces with the most militant teachers’ union in the country.
The proposed merger — which would be a potential first in the country — would see the more than 1,000 member Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS), Local 4343 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), amalgamate into a single union local with the nearly 30,000-member Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), AFT Local 1.
ChiACTS president Chris Baehrend said the potential merger “helps all Chicago teachers fight together on the same issues.”
Formed in 2009, ChiACTS is at the national forefront of organizing charter schools. Its members are not only winning union recognition across the city, but also showing a willingness to withhold their labor to win fair contracts, much like their counterparts in the CTU.
Since October, ChiACTS teachers have come close to going on strike at UNO, ASPIRA and Passages charter schools. But all three walkouts — which would have been the first charter school teacher strikes in history — were avoided by last-minute contract agreements.
In the words of Illinois Network of Charter Schools president Andrew Broy, “Chicago has become the epicenter of charter union organizing in the country.”
Though the CTU is undoubtedly opposed to the expansion of charter schools, as evidenced by the union’s successful effort to win a cap on new charters last fall, its leaders say they are dedicated to building teacher-to-teacher solidarity.
“Charter schools are here; they’re not going anywhere,” CTU president Karen Lewis recently said, continuing: “It’s the management companies we have the issues with, not the charter teachers, not the students, not the parents. The key is, organize people to fight for fairer conditions of work, and then that’s good for everybody.”
Since September 2015, the CTU has provided support to contract negotiations and enforcement for ChiACTS through a service agreement. Further, CTU members have frequently joined ChiACTS teachers at their rallies, and activists from both locals have met to discuss shared concerns through a joint committee.
“We believe that unification is a key step to allow educators to speak with one voice in Chicago, halt privatization and bring additional resources to our collective work,” says a letter from CTU leaders to delegates, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Union leaders acknowledge that the merger would be “a delicate process and will inevitably bring challenges and tensions.” This seems particularly true as the comparably small ChiACTS local would likely seek to retain some measure of autonomy within the much larger CTU.
Speaking for the charter companies, Broy described the unification move as a “hostile takeover” of ChiACTS by the CTU — a bizarre allegation considering ChiACTS members are voting on whether to approve the merger themselves.
“There will be trials,” said CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey. “I well imagine there are things that could potentially be tricky, but frankly you could say they’re the same things that divide our teachers now.”
Teachers at individual charter schools would still have their own contracts, and ChiACTS members would be able to run for seats on the CTU’s executive board and House of Delegates.
This week’s merger vote by ChiACTS members — the outcome of which will not be announced for several days — precedes a similar vote by CTU members, which will likely happen this fall. Further details have yet to be made public.
“When people hear the term ‘CTU,’ they’re going to have to understand that the CTU doesn’t just represent CPS,” Sharkey said. “It will more broadly be an organization for public educators in the city of Chicago.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.