Will Chicago Become the Epicenter of Charter School Unionization?

Jeff Schuhrke

Supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union rally on September 11, 2012. (Shutter Stutter/flickr)

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.”

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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