Does Chicago Have Its First Unionized Charter School"¦Or Not?

May 18, 2009

Does Chicago have its first union charter school? Well, that all depends on whom you ask.

The state has certified the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff as the bargaining unit for teachers at three campuses of the Chicago International Charter School, which would seem to make it the city's first unionized charter.

The union is calling on Chicago International Charter School management -- which is handled at the three unionizing campuses by Civitas Schools -- to sit down with teachers and start hammering out a contract.

Not so fast, Civitas says.

Election vs. card check. The nonprofit management group is arguing that the feds should have jurisdiction over the union certification, not the state. So it's filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board. A decision is expected this month.

Civitas' motivation? Under federal law, the three charter campuses fighting for union representation would have to hold an election to determine whether teachers want the union.

State law doesn't require an election at the schools, because a majority of teachers have already signed union cards. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board says it received 91 signed and dated cards; organizers say that's about 75 percent of employees at the three campuses.

Civitas' CEO Simon Hess says he wants teachers to be able to make a "private, informed decision" about whether to join the union. The union says Civitas is stalling and would love to buy time to pressure teachers not to join the union.

We're public! No! We're private! The legal fight has forced Civitas to make a prickly argument: Charter schools have worked hard to emphasize they are public schools, funded with public dollars. But in order to fall under the jurisdiction of the NLRB, you've got to be a private firm, and that's what Civitas is arguing. The Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board has jurisdiction over public educational employers.

"I wouldn't be so certain that you've got a bargaining unit there in that charter school as long as there's a question about whether the employer is a private firm," said Robert Bruno, a labor expert at UIC.

Then again, arguing you're a private firm just because "the place is being managed by some private management firm, that's not gonna wash. They're still a public entity," Bruno told me. It's not a clear-cut case.

Civitas CEO Simon Hess said Civitas is essentially a private vendor. Just because you receive public funds doesn't mean you're a public entity, Hess told me.

There's been one other case like this, which might give us some idea of how things will turn out. A year ago, teachers at Cambridge Lakes Charter School in Kane County formed a union. Their employer, the Northern Kane Educational Corporation, also argued that the NLRB should have jurisdiction in the case, using the same private employer argument. But the state IELRB ruled otherwise. In a decision issued in November 2008, the IELRB determined that Northern Kane should indeed be considered a public employer subject to the state public educational employer act.

The school's administration appealed the decision to the appellate court, which is where the case remains.

Who is our boss? That's one of the first questions Chicago International Charter School teachers faced when they began organizing.

The Chicago International Charter School has 12 campuses -- they're run by four different educational management organizations: two for-profits (EdisonLearning and Victory Schools, Inc.) and two non-profits, American Quality Schools and Civitas.

Civitas was started by Chicago International Charter School in 2002 and is described on the Web site as a "wholly owned subsidiary" of CICS. For you business maj0rs out there, Hess told me that technically Civitas is a limited liability corporation whose sole member is CICS.

The Civitas name is on teachers' paychecks at the campuses it manages, so "we decided they were the employer," says Northtown Academy teacher Eric Levy.

The three Civitas campuses are: Northtown Academy, 3900 W. Peterson Ave.; Ralph Ellison, 1817 W. 80th St.; and Wrightwood, 8130 S. California Ave.

The latest: The IELRB says it received two unfair labor practice charges from the Chicago ACTS union on Friday.‚  Stay tuned.