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What Does the Chicago Charter School Strike Mean for the Future of Organizing?

Chicago-Charter-2-blog.jpgThe nation's first-ever strike by charter school teachers is underway in Chicago, as hundreds of educators protested on the picket lines for a second day on Wednesday. 

More than 500 teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff members from the 15-school Acero charter network are fighting for pay raises, smaller class sizes, and more funding for special education services, among other demands. They are members of the Chicago Teachers Union—and part of a small group of unionized charter educators.

Just 11.3 percent of charter schools across the country are unionized, according to data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Charter schools were in part created to free school leaders from many state and district regulations, including collective bargaining contracts. But teachers' unions are making gains in charter school networks, especially as unions fight membership losses stemming from an adverse Supreme Court ruling this summer.

Chicago is a major epicenter of this movement, with about a quarter of its 130 charter schools unionized.

robert bbruno.jpgEducation Week spoke to Robert Bruno, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about the history of the unionization movement in the Windy City and the implications of the Acero strike. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Walk us through the background of unionization efforts toward charter schools in Chicago.

It's relatively recent. It really corresponds to the election in 2010 of the Chicago Teachers Union leadership. The new leadership [including now-CTU president, Jesse Sharkey] had been very critical of the evolution of charters in Chicago. ... Very high on their agenda was really addressing what they saw as the disinvestment in neighborhood schools and the shifting of interests to a corporate, privatized approach in Chicago, and of course, a key piece of that was the charter schools, which had grown significantly in that time.

The previous union leadership had always looked at charter schools as something outside their purview, as something they couldn't have any impact on because the law in Illinois prohibited them from being covered under same public-school contracts. They could be unionized as a separate, independent body, but they could not be covered and included in the same collective bargaining agreements. 

When the new leadership came in, they recognized the limitations of the law, but quickly began to work with an independent union that had ... formed with the support of the Chicago Teachers Union. That support became more and more substantial. As different schools got organized, the CTU provided resources and staff to help the independent charter school union negotiate contracts, and this past summer, the union completed a multi-year process of amending their bylaws, so they could merge with that independent union and be in the position of being actively engaged in the bargaining. 

Now, we're in the first-ever teachers' strike at a charter school. What is the significance of that?

In 2012, [the CTU] takes 26,000 of their members out on strike successfully for seven days, and there's this enormous public support for doing it. Four years later, they pull off another one-day strike and make further gains in addressing charters and the larger issues around education reform. 

I think 2012 demonstrated that teachers' unions could take a different approach to education. As one management site attorney told me in the book I co-authored, this union is different now. It's not just about the granular nitty-gritty, bread-and-butter labor relations. This union wants to talk about policy, they want to talk about investment, they want to talk about how the school system should be. And that's extraordinary for a labor union.

With this charter school strike, you have the teachers' union saying this isn't just about labor relations. This isn't just about, "Can we negotiate better pay, can we negotiate smaller class sizes, around workload?"—although all these things are very real, that's what's agitating and frustrating teachers. But [the union is saying], "We want to make clear that the charter school movement in Chicago can no longer operate as this independent, investor-driven operation that's been operating outside of collective bargaining and the voice of teachers. We're going to try to bring this in the fold of the contracts we negotiate."

That's a significant challenge. That's telling the future mayor, future charter operators, and current ones that if you're going to function here, we're going to organize more and more, and when we do, you're not going to be able to pay [charter teachers] less than teachers of similar backgrounds are paid in a neighborhood school. You're not going to be able to operate outside of the regulatory system.

They are signaling to other school districts, they're saying to other big-city mayors, other teachers' unions, "this is a different model and you should look at what Chicago is doing. They've organized almost twice [the number of charter schools] above the national average."

If they successfully win this strike—and so far this union hasn't lost any, at least the way you might evaluate them—it really will become a different approach to how teachers' unions respond to charters. It's more than just the bread-and-butter of the contracts of 15 schools and 500 teachers. I think it's a challenge to the very theoretical underpinnings of charter schools.

Looking into your crystal ball, do you think the charter-school unionization movement will spread in other big cities?  

It's clear that the national teachers' unions have begun to invest in organizing charters. Just recently, a virtual charter school in California avoided a strike. My crystal ball is foggy and murky, but I do know there are some important lessons that come out of labor-relations history. One of them is that where workers are able to successfully use collective voice ... it typically signals that you can in fact improve things, you can make things better.

Everybody who's now in the industry will say, "Well, there are examples of teachers successfully organizing, negotiating contracts, and using direct action, legal strikes, to improve those conditions." And what [the strike] will signal to the small sector of unionized charter schools is that you have power and you can use that successfully, you now have examples of what can be done. And that will improve conditions, which is a good thing.

The other important message it communicates is to that large non-unionized charter-school [sector]: "Look at how things have gotten better in Chicago for teachers and paraprofessionals." It's not a nirvana, it's not heaven, there's still some level of compromise and incremental improvement—but here's an organization that can make things better for you. It can help you fight and win. You're more likely to join, you're more likely to say, "Well, I'm not afraid to organize, this union is effective."

This strike is not only on behalf of the current members, it's that other contingent—the 75 percent [of Chicago charter schools that are not unionized]—who are also watching very closely. [The CTU's] ability to organize the other networks would be significantly improved if they're successful in this strike. 

Teachers' unions have suffered a blow with the Supreme Court's Janus decision, which has made it easier for teachers to leave the unions. Do you think organizing in the charter sector will be the unions' solution to membership losses? 

I think it was something they always should have been looking at, something I think they overlooked. While only a small percentage of students nationwide are going to charter schools, clearly there is an opportunity to organize a group of folks that the teachers' unions need to be invested in. And certainly with a decision like Janus that will generate some [membership] loss, along with resources, will compel the union to think, "Well, here's an area of growth while we confront the challenge to maintain the status we have in traditional schools."

I think there are plenty of incentives and reasons for unions to be organizing in charter schools. But what you see in Chicago would have happened even if Janus had been decided differently.

Image: President of the Chicago Teachers Union Jesse Sharkey talks with members of the media as charter school teachers and their supporters walk the picket line outside the Acero's Zizumbo Elementary Charter school on Tuesday. —Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP

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