Chicago Charter School Network Opens Door to Unions

Although American teachers unions have largely opposed the spread of charter schools around the country, at least some local branches have taken steps to organize charter schools even in the face of claims from operators that they are able to perform better and deliver better results to students without unionized staff. One of the most [...]

Although American teachers unions have largely opposed the spread of charter schools around the country, at least some local branches have taken steps to organize charter schools even in the face of claims from operators that they are able to perform better and deliver better results to students without unionized staff.

One of the most significant such forays is happening in Chicago, where the city’s representatives of the American Federation of Teachers has approached the leaders of one of the largest charter school networks in the country to allow organizing activities on its campuses. Last month the AFT and the United Neighborhood Organization – which runs 13 charters in the city – agreed to an information swap, including turning over to the AFT the contact information of its 400 employees.

Furthermore, the UNO will also allow union organizers onto school campuses, all without taking a position on whether the group supports or opposes unionization.

Backers of charters, which are public schools run by independent groups, say freedom from union contracts enables innovation in areas like staffing and school calendars. Opponents say charters siphon money and students from struggling traditional public schools. Labor leaders say they want to organize charters because teachers there complain about low pay and poor working conditions, and because unionized teachers can negotiate favorable conditions for students, such as small class sizes. But others say the push has as much to do with unions’ declining membership.

Gary Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, believes that these union approaches to charters are in some way part of a fight to stay relevant – or even just stay alive – in the new educational environment.

And he’s not wrong. Teachers unions have been dropping members year-on-year and the attrition only accelerated once more charter schools, funded by tax dollars but run independently, began opening across the country.

The charter-school drive comes as teacher unions face headwinds on numerous fronts, including layoffs and curbs to collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan and other states. Last year, the NEA had about three million members, while the AFT had about 848,000 full dues-paying members, both declines of about 3% from 2011, according to data from the Department of Labor.

Nationally, about 12% of the approximately 5,000 charter schools in 2010 were unionized, according to the charter-school alliance. That includes charters in states that require most charter teachers be part of districts’ collective-bargaining policies. By comparison, more than half of all public-school districts in the U.S., including charters, were subject to collective bargaining in the 2007-08 school year, according to U.S. data.

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