Chicago charter school subject to private-sector labor laws

Labor board decision that school is "private entity" may set precedent

January 2, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
File: Pro-union Chicago Math and Science Academy teachers and supporters before a board meeting at the school last year.

Teachers at a Chicago charter school are now subject to private-sector labor laws, rather than state laws governing public workers. The move could impact how public schools are run down the road.

The ruling, made by the National Labor Relations Board last month, said the Chicago Math and Science Academy is a “private entity” and therefore covered under the federal law governing the private sector.

The decision overrules a vote taken by teachers last year to form a union in accordance with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. At the time, two-thirds of teachers at the school approved the union and it became official under state law.  

But school managers wanted to follow federal labor law, which among other things would require a vote by secret ballot.

“This case was really about whether you organize via one method or another,” said Andrew Broy, director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. “It wasn’t about you can organize at all, whether you can bust unions, or anything like that.”

Still, the case was watched closely by unions and charter supporters across the country. Several groups, including the American Federation of Labor and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools filed briefs.

That’s because charter schools are publicly-funded, but privately-run. The public-private, hybrid nature of charter schools creates a number of gray areas when it comes to accountability and governance.

In many ways, they are like government contractors, said James Powers, the attorney representing CMSA. A school district signs a contract with a private group, usually a non-profit organization, to run a school and allocates public money based on the number of students served.

But as the charter sector grows in cities across the country, teachers unions and other pro-labor groups have said expanding charters is a “union-busting” tactic.

Labor laws and charter school laws vary widely from state to state. Some require charter teachers to belong to the same union as teachers in district-run schools, others prohibit charter teachers from forming unions altogether.  

Zev Eigen is an expert in labor law at Northwestern University and says the ruling could be seen as good or bad depending on who you ask.

The NLRB is consistent across state lines, which helps charter teachers in right-to-work states and other places where public sector employees have limited bargaining power, he said.

“I would much prefer to work at a charter school now, and be covered by the federal, National Labor Relations Act, than to be at the whim and mercy that public school teachers are of being under state law,” Eigen said. “The state has much less power to change the rules underneath them. To say, ‘oh, sorry we just changed the law so now you’re not allowed to strike or you’re not allowed to collectively bargain over length of school day’ or whatever it is.”

But the national law also gives management more latitude, and allows them to campaign against a union, he added.

Apart from the legal ramifications, deeming a charter schools as "private" adds fuels to the debate over the future of traditional public schools. 

A spokesman for the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff, which helped CMSA teachers organize, said they are still analyzing the ruling to determine what impact it could have on existing charter school unions and future organizing efforts.

Both sides said it's still a gray issue.

“This technical area of labor relations is one that’s developing,” Broy said. “This is a chapter of it, but it will continue in the coming weeks, and months, and years to be an issue, both here in Chicago and nationally.”