With help from its national and state affiliates, the Chicago Teachers Union is planning a push to organize charter school teachers.

The American Federation of Teachers, which recently won teacher support to unionize seven charter schools in Florida, has sent national representative Rob Callahan to Chicago to spearhead the charter outreach campaign. (In addition to Florida, the AFT has organized charter school teachers in Maryland, New Jersey, New York State, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. New York City’s local, the United Federation of Teachers, runs two charters.)

Noting that teachers at some charters have “reached out” for union help, Callahan notes, “Unions don’t organize workers, workers organize unions.”

Initial steps in Chicago will include admitting charter teachers to union-run professional development programs, including the union’s touted National Board certification prep program, called Nurturing Teacher Leadership. The union will also ask charter teachers to join in a letter-writing campaign designed to pressure state legislators into passing school funding reform.

Callahan declined to identify the charter schools in which organizing efforts will initially be focused. But the union would extend its reach furthest by targeting the operators of multiple campuses, such as United Neighborhood Organization, Youth Connections and Chicago International Charter Schools. More than half of the approximately 900 Chicago charter school teachers and instructional aides work for these three operators.

Elizabeth Evans, executive director of the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, declined to comment on the organizing but notes that charters and unions share a long and often collaborative history, including charter endorsement from Albert Shanker, the late former AFT president.

Still, Evans says that charter school teacher contracts show a dash of progressivism. In New York, she notes, teachers work longer days at the union-run charter high school.

State law prohibits teachers in Chicago charters from being part of the same collective bargaining agreement as teachers in regular CPS schools. But the union could organize teachers under separate agreements with individual operators, says CTU’s Springfield lobbyist, Pamelyn Massarsky. A master contract that applies to all charters could also be forged, she notes.

“It’s a fairness issue,” Massarsky says. “Teachers in Illinois, as public employees, are entitled to collective bargaining, and we intend to step in and do that for them.”

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