Brian Harris of Chicago ACTS speaks at a press conference about union organizing at charter schools. Credit: Photo by Melissa Sanchez


Nationally, the movement to organize charter school teachers is just now gaining momentum. For example, the United Teachers of Los Angeles is working to organize teachers in that city’s largest charter network, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools.

The union recently won a temporary restraining order against Alliance, preventing management from interfering with the organizing drive.

While other cities are just beginning to face such issues, Chicago’s history of charter organizing runs deeper. Last week marked the sixth anniversary of the first teacher contract negotiated by the union representing teachers in Chicago charter schools.

Although charters were originally the brainchild of labor leader Albert Shanker, many later charter advocates consider the absence of union rules as essential to their ability to innovate. When the Republican-controlled Illinois Legislature adopted a charter law in 1996, it prohibited teachers in Chicago’s charter schools from joining the Chicago Teachers Union. For more than a decade, teachers in Chicago’s charters had no union representation.

By the mid-2000’s, the American Federation of Teachers had begun developing a workaround. In 2007, the AFT chartered a new union, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, or ChiACTS. Unlike the CTU, ChiACTS is a federated union, which means each bargaining unit negotiates individual agreements with its employer. The next year, as the New York Times reported, CTU formed a charter outreach committee to support organizing drives in charter schools.

In 2009, ChiACTS scored its first wins by organizing and signing a contract with three Chicago International Charter School campuses managed by Civitas –Ellison, Northtown and Wrightwood.

See “Chicago ACTS prepares contract talks,” Catalyst June 2009 and “Charter school contract talks underway for Chicago International,” Catalyst August 2009


Today, the union represents 1,000 teachers and support staff at 32 schools, totaling one-fifth of Chicago’s charters.

One of the main drivers of this growth was the union’s successful 2013 effort to organize teachers in the UNO Charter Network Schools (UCSN). The organizing drive brought 415 teachers and staff from 13 UCSN campuses into ChiACTS.

Although management immediately agreed to recognize ChiACTS, union leader Rob Heise was fired last June from his teaching job at UCSN’s Garcia High School. ChiACTS filed an unfair labor charge over the firing. (In a November 4 email, Heise said the case is ongoing. A November 5 Chicago Sun-Times story raised questions about the future of UCSN schools due to financial problems at UNO.)

ChiACTS success with UNO has fueled organizing elsewhere, and more charges of retaliatory firings.

See “UNO teachers to vote on first union contract,” Catalyst March 2014 and “Urban Prep, North Lawndale charters push to form union,” Catalyst February 2015


Watch for even closer cooperation between ChiACTS and CTU. Since its founding, ChiACTS has relied on the Illinois Federation of Teachers to provide professional services like help with contract negotiations or redressing grievances. Last month, CTU took over that role. (The CTU already had supplied ChiACTS with a paid organizer.)

The decision to switch service providers was described as practical—with six contract negotiations under way this year, ChiACTS looked to the CTU to offer more staff and greater support.

At the same time, a cooperative relationship between a union for teachers in district schools and its counterpart for teachers in charters may also ease a tricky problem: how to organize charter teachers while advocating for restrictions on charter expansion.

Already, ChiACTS has publicly supported the idea of a moratorium on charters in Chicago Public Schools. “With a $500 million deficit and thousands of layoffs looming, it is unconscionable for CPS to hand out extra monies to open new charters at the expense of the thousands of current CPS students at their moment of greatest need,” said Chris Baehrend, vice president of ChiACTS, via email.

See “Take 5: PARCC scores, nurse issues, closer union ties,” Catalyst October 2015.

Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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