The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is poised to go after a new organizing target: parents.

In June, SEIU officials from Chicago visited Los Angeles, where parents who had already organized under the banner of a widely-known charter operator joined forces with the union earlier this year.

In Chicago, the union’s efforts are still in the beginning stages, but are taking place at a time when local school councils, comprised mostly of parents, are under fire. Local school council elections are scheduled to take place next spring.

Marrianne McMullen, communications director of the SEIU Illinois State Council, made the trip to Los Angeles and says details of the organizing effort here have yet to be worked out. “I’ve just been talking to a lot of different people about the idea,” she says. “My hope is that by late July we will decide if we want to try parent organizing, and where.”

Similar efforts are being investigated in New York and Oakland, in addition to Chicago, according to parent union members in Los Angeles.

There’s precedent here for a parent-union partnership: In 2002, Chicago’s SEIU Local 73 successfully negotiated a deal that helped 1,500 parents who volunteered in CPS schools land official jobs and vacation time. Before the union hammered out the agreement with state labor officials, parent volunteers were given stipends, but received no benefits.

This time, however, the SEIU is looking to rally parents around improving their children’s education, after finding through an internal survey that education was a top concern of its members.

“With the diminishing influence of local school councils, there needs to be a new set of voices, particularly parents, organized so that those voices can be taken into consideration,” says Kenneth Wong, the director of urban education policy program at Brown University. “SEIU is going outside the traditional union power structure and looking at national issues of interest to its members.”

Winning an election

Last July, the Los Angeles Parent Union was formed by Green Dot charter schools founder Steve Barr to rally parents to demand more schools based on his model, which emphasizes small campuses, college prep curricula, parent participation and local school control.

So far, the parent union has 10,000 members and 12 chapters.

For the past year, the union has conducted crash courses in local politics for parents. Dubbed “Parents University,” The courses explain the organization and structure of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the city’s power structure and basic community organizing techniques.

“Parents want a better school system for their children,” says Alma Marquez, Green Dot’s director of government affairs and community organizing. “But, no one has explained how the system works.”

The group scored a victory when one of its members, Trina L. Williams, won a four-year term on the Ingleside Unified School District board this past April. (Ingleside is separate from the Los Angeles district, but the parent union has a chapter there.) The parent union helped with the campaign, placing telephone calls and doing on-the-ground campaign work on William’s behalf, according to members.

Around the same time as the election, the parent union and the local SEIU began discussions about joining forces and creating a partnership that would benefit both groups, say parent union and SEIU officials. The parent union could learn from the SEIU’S organizing and political savvy, while the SEIU could be brought into the parent union’s power structure and potentially boost its membership.

“Organizational power can win local elections in which barely anybody votes,” says Christie Hind, who sits on the parent union’s board of directors. “That mobilization power can be strengthened with SEIU’s organizational tactics.”

Meanwhile, as the SEIU prepares for potential parent organizing here in Chicago, local school councils still face the prospect of losing much of their power. State representatives intend to hold hearings in Chicago and collect input from LSCs on legislation proposed by CPS that would take away LSC authority to fire principals. Though the bill failed to move forward in the last session, it may be revived in the fall.

The House Education Committee has passed a resolution in support of local school councils that calls for legislative hearings to determine what LSCs need to succeed. The resolution, which would be non-binding, is now pending before the full House. The resolution is backed by the education reform group Designs for Change.

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