Teacher unions took another step into Chicago’s charter world with the news that one of the city’s larger charter networks, run by the politically connected United Neighborhood Organization, had agreed to allow its teachers to unionize.

The new agreement between Chicago ACTS, the city’s charter teacher union which already represents teachers at 14 other schools, doesn’t mean UNO’s 13 campuses and 300-plus teachers are unionized yet.

The agreement does establish that UNO will be neutral toward the unionization effort. “It protects them from things charter operators do most of the time when teachers try to organize – hold captive audience meetings where they make veiled threats and intimidation” and bringing in union-avoidance consultants, said Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff President Brian Harris.

It also sets up a broad process where an arbitrator will decide whether to recognize the union and will have the power to resolve other disputes – potentially avoiding years of costly legal battles. By using an arbitrator, the union and management can avoid using either the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board or the National Labor Relations Board to resolve their complaints.

Harris says teachers trying to organize a union at UNO didn’t necessarily face these obstacles before but that “a lot of UNO teachers are very unhappy with their working conditions.” 

The agreement gives the arbitrator the task of determining whether a majority of teachers are interested in forming a union, but doesn’t set the process. This could happen when teachers sign union cards or a petition asking for the union.

Chicago ACTS says that at two of its 14 campuses – Chicago Math and Science Academy, and Latino Youth High School – union efforts have been dogged by litigation asserting that charters aren’t covered by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. Management at Chicago Math and Science Academy recently won a federal ruling dissolving the union there.

As a result, Chicago ACTS’ future efforts to unionize charters may face more roadblocks. The union will be subject to a lengthier federal process that requires a secret ballot election, with time for both management and the union to campaign. That’s very different from the easier state process that ACTS has relied on so far for its unionization drives. 

“We first went under state law when we organized Civitas. We had 75 percent of the staff signing union cards before the employer even knew what was up,” Harris notes.

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