Teacher union organizes three charter schools, an area-wide first

CHICAGO -- In a historic step, an overwhelming majority of teachers at three area charter school campuses, joined by parents and community leaders, filed authorization cards April 3 with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to form a union. The teachers seek immediate recognition of their collective bargaining unit and a commitment by school officials to promptly bargain and settle a contract.

The teachers work at three Civitas Schools’ Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS)—Wrightwood, Northtown Academy and Ralph Ellison campuses—under a charter held by the Chicago Charter School Foundation. They would be the first unionized charter school teachers in the Chicago area.

“We hope that, in the spirit of bettering our schools, our students’ education opportunities and our communities, the schools’ administration works cooperatively with our new union local as we move forward and settle a contract,” said Amy Jacob, a third-grade teacher at the CICS/Civitas Wrightwood Charter School.

Three-quarters of the total teaching staff at the three campuses signed union authorization cards to be the first unit represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers. The number of teachers who signed cards well exceeds the simple majority required by state law.

The filing is the result of a two-year campaign by the AFT. The teachers are organized under Chicago ACTS because state law does not permit charter school teachers to be under the same collective bargaining agreement as other Chicago Public School teachers.

A collective bargaining victory will be seen as a sharp rebuke to Mayor Daley’s efforts to steadily privatize the school system under his Renaissance 2010 program.

“We organized because a teacher’s voice in a school’s decision-making process will help create the best work environment for teachers and the best learning environment for students,” said Emily Mueller, a high school language arts teacher at CICS/Civitas Northtown Academy Charter School. “We love our work, and a union gives us the security of being able to voice concerns and ideas without placing our jobs at risk.”

In a letter to parents, the CICS teachers said, “We want to build a strong and consistent community of professionals and reduce the high rate of teacher turnover. A successful educational experience for any child depends on great teachers and engaged parents.”

The AFT’s Chicago and state leaders expressed their support for the charter schoolteachers to form their union. “Their dedication will help their schools become trailblazers of innovation and collaboration within the community,” said Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart, who is an AFT vice president.

The CICS teachers intend to work very closely with the communities in and around the schools. “We hope the teachers’ union is recognized quickly, so they can start to do all in their power to lift our youth to even greater heights,” said Martha Biondi, associate professor of history at Northwestern University and chair of the Chicago Workers’ Rights Board.

More than 1,500 students attend the three CICS campuses, which are part of the Chicago International Charter School Network and are managed by Civitas Schools, a fully owned subsidiary of the charter holder, the Chicago Charter School Foundation.

Through its affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers, the CICS/Civitas unit of Chicago ACTS joins the nationwide Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, a community of educators at more than 70 charter schools in 10 states, who belong to AFT-affiliated unions.

Support is also building for a one-year moratorium on all school closings, phase-outs and consolidations called for in a bill introduced by State Representative Cynthia Soto (HB 363 School Closing Moratorium Bill). The bill would create fair and responsible requirements for all closures that the Board of Education must follow.

School closures particularly in the African American and Latino communities have sparked considerable anger and resentment. The closings are being carried out under Renaissance 2010 with the aim to re-open schools under charter management.