UPDATED: Teachers at UNO charter schools have voted 87 percent in favor of joining a union, an Illinois Federation of Teachers spokeswoman said.

The announcement comes just days after scandal prompted the state to cut off capital funding to UNO charter schools, and it means the city’s charter teachers union will roughly double in size. According to the Illinois Federation of Teachers, more than 20 percent of charter teachers in Chicago will now be union members.

Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) began an organizing drive in earnest at UNO charter schools after the charter operator signed a “neutrality agreement” last March. On Wednesday, under the terms of the agreement, an arbitrator began tallied cards signed by union supporters to verify that a majority of teachers wanted the union.

Jessica Hanzlik, an 8th-grade teacher at UNO Soccer Academy, says that the drive to organize UNO teachers began six weeks ago when the school announced the neutrality agreement with Chicago ACTS.

For years before that, she said, ACTS had done outreach but not a specific organizing campaign.

“They always would periodically call charter school teachers to see if we were happy with our jobs, how things were going,” Hanzlik says.

The organizing drive has given teachers an opportunity to talk about “big-picture education issues,” Hanzlik adds, like strengthening the teaching profession and advocating for students.

Hanzlik hopes a union will help UNO put in place some kind of “peer accountability” system, such as peer evaluations. “Teachers feel a lot of pressure and accountability from above, and we want to start thinking about how to hold each other accountable,” Hanzlik says.

She says a union could also strengthen teachers’ voice in how the school is run, particularly when it concerns school climate.

“We have been working really hard to figure out how to help teachers feel a sense of ownership over their work,” Hanzlik notes. “I think that when this idea was brought to (UNO’s administration), they saw it as an opportunity.”

Historical roots

Emily Rosenberg, director of DePaul University’s Labor Education Center, says that teachers in charter schools are organizing for the same reasons as the public school teachers who first formed unions.

“It’s back to the 1900s,” Rosenberg says. “They don’t have any control over their working conditions, over their class size, whether they get positions they are supposed to get, whether they get raises, whether they get vacation days. This is just history revisiting itself.”

The biggest issue, Rosenberg says, is unfair treatment on the job. “It’s the very tentative nature of your work,” she says.

Before Wednesday’s card tally began, Rosenberg heard that “the cards are flying out of the hands of the reps” for teachers to sign and show their support for a union.

“This neutrality agreement has made all the difference in the world in terms of teachers feeling safe to go ahead and organize,” Rosenberg says.

Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, says that the agreement has been key to getting a foot in the door at UNO.

Without the agreement, recent rulings that charter schools aren’t covered by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act mean that the union would have had to conduct a secret-ballot election after a campaign period during which both employers and the union can set out their perspectives.

“[Employers] will hire anti-union law firms, they will hold captive-audience meetings. Often they will intimidate or fire [teachers],” Montgomery says.

Union expansion uncertain

Chicago ACTS’ ability to unionize other charter schools may be limited for that reason. Years of legal battles have kept it from gaining a foothold at Chicago Math and Science Academy, and at Latino Youth High School.

An April 18 secret-ballot vote at Latino Youth, which was 10 to 1 in favor of a union, may put an end to the strife, says Chris Baehrend, a teacher at the school who is also vice president of Chicago ACTS.

“We’ve gone almost three years without a proper say in how the school is run, how the budget is run, having a salary scale. It’s dispiriting,” Baehrend says.

In Sept. 2010, Baehrend says, a majority of teachers signed union cards. But the school asked the National Labor Relations Board to intervene, claiming that the state educational labor relations law didn’t apply because Latino Youth is a charter school.

But now that the vote is wrapped up, Baehrend says, “we have our letter ready to demand to bargain” as soon as the results are certified by the National Labor Relations Board.

Baehrend says working conditions, turnover and firings prompted teachers to unionize. He says that a month after he was hired at the school in fall 2009, his pension match was cut, requiring him to fork over the entire 9 percent of his salary to the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. His health insurance premium went up 50 percent. 

“We didn’t get any new textbooks,” Baehrend says. “We were taken to a place called SCARCE in Glen Ellyn–schools dump off old textbooks and educators can go there to pick them up. There were no computers for classroom use. The photocopier often didn’t work. It was like, how do you teach like this?”

He wants to see teachers represented on a committee that makes hiring and firing decisions at the school. He’d also like to see teacher-led professional development and more advance notice for teachers regarding whether their jobs will continue from year to year. In one case, he says, he was notified a week before school started. “We have lost so many great teachers because we don’t even know if we have a job,” Baehrend says.

Montgomery says charter unions may continue to grow.

“If people think that somehow the path ahead to better schools is to deprive teachers of the ability to organize, they are deeply misguided,” he says. “Unions will change the way they look, but you are never going to get rid of people seeking a collective voice in where they work, whether it’s Starbucks, Boeing, or schools. That’s the way human beings work–they want their issues addressed.”

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