UNO charter school teachers unionize

Eighty-seven percent of teachers at one of the largest charter school networks in Chicago unionize.

May 2, 2013

WBEZ/Lee Bey
UNO’s Soccer Academy elementary school. Teachers at UNO charter school network’s 13 campuses are now unionized. UNO is one of the largest charter school networks in the city. UNO announced in March it would not oppose efforts by teachers to unionize.

Teachers and school staff at one of Chicago’s largest charter school networks have voted to unionize.

Eighty-seven percent of teachers at UNO charter schools signed union cards in the past weeks, according to both the union and the school. An independent arbitrator counted union cards Wednesday at UNO’s high school on the Southwest Side.

UNO immediately recognized the union. Some 415 teachers and school staff at 13 campuses are affected.

“It’s a big deal. It’s May Day in Chicago and you can’t think of a better labor story, can you?” said Phil Mullins, longtime organizer and now chief strategy officer with the United Neighborhood Organization, a 29-year-old community organization focused on Latino empowerment that holds the charter for the schools.

Also a big deal is the fact that UNO swung open its doors to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, allowing the union access to teachers and the opportunity to organize openly in schools.

Mullins says UNO has been in contact with union representatives for more than a year. He said the recent agreement to allow teachers to organize is not related to an ongoing investigation of UNO schools for potential misuse of a state construction grant.

The idea behind charter schools, which are privately operated with public dollars, is that they would be free from most school district rules and regulations, and also labor agreements. Advocates say schools unhindered by teachers contracts can create student-centered school calendars and practices.

The proportion of teachers represented by a union is falling precipitously in Chicago as the district closes union schools and opens charters. Chicago ACTS has made an organizing push into charters across the city.  With the UNO vote, the size of the fledgling union more than doubles. Charter school teachers are not allowed to join the Chicago Teachers Union; Chicago ACTS is a sister union.

“It’s very, very high approval across all campuses. I think we had three campuses with 100 percent of the teachers saying yes, so it’s overwhelming approval,” said UNO-Garcia High technology teacher Alvin Colon. Colon says a union will be good for education at UNO.

“I think it will have great, positive impact. A number of my colleagues are passionate teachers. They want to continue improving at what they do. The union is going help solidify the team and make for considerably less turnover.”

Reached on his way to a union meeting, Colon said teachers were motivated to bring in the union because they want a say in things like their evaluations, which he called “unfair.” He described aspects of a new incentive pay program as “unrealistic.”

Colon says what makes a charter school a charter school is not whether the teachers are unionized, but the element of parental choice involved, the fact that students can choose the school in lieu of a neighborhood school they’re assigned to.

Mullins of UNO says something similar: “Our schools when established were never established with the idea that a labor agreement—or the absence of a labor agreement—was a critical part of what makes our schools work. We don’t think organized labor is the critical variable in whether schools are successful or not. It has more to do with mission and a vibrant relationship with the community that makes that difference.“

UNO has come under attack from opponents of charter schools, including the Chicago Teachers Union, and the heat has intensified in recent weeks amidst reports that UNO improperly handed contracts to insiders. It’s unclear how the unionization vote will affect the attacks leveled at UNO going forward.

The unionization vote attracted national attention. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said in a statement that UNO represents a “turning point” and “an example of another charter school operator recognizing that it can’t succeed without the voices of those who work most closely with students.”

President of the Illinois Federation of Teachers Dan Montgomery says the vote to unionize sends another message.

“If people think that somehow charters are a path to getting around teachers unions or getting away from teachers unions, I think that puts the lie to that.” Montgomery also said when employers make clear they are willing to let workers unionize, nearly all will choose to do so.

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZEducation