Chicago ACTS prepares for contract talks

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Teachers at three Chicago International charter schools—the first charters to unionize in Chicago—are taking their first steps toward negotiating a contract with their employer, Civitas Schools.

The new union, called the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers (ACTS), must hammer out a constitution and form a leadership team to direct contract talks; work that will officially begin on Thursday. Teachers who have carried the organizing ball to this point are now surveying Civitas faculty to identify key bargaining issues.

Teachers at three Chicago International charter schools—the first charters to unionize in Chicago—are taking their first steps toward negotiating a contract with their employer, Civitas Schools.

The new union, called the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers (ACTS), must hammer out a constitution and form a leadership team to direct contract talks; work that will officially begin on Thursday. Teachers who have carried the organizing ball to this point are now surveying Civitas faculty to identify key bargaining issues.

After three months of legal maneuvering, Civitas teachers finally solidified their union bid in a 73-49 vote on June 18. The victory margin—roughly 6 in 10 teachers favoring unionization—fell short of the mark set in April when nearly three-fourths of Civitas’ teachers signaled support by signing and presenting “union cards” to the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board.

Jean Goldrich, an English teacher at CICS Northtown, says union organizers were expecting some attrition in the pro-union ranks, primarily due to a change in leadership at Civitas. In April, the organization replaced CEO Thresa Nelson—criticized by some teachers for an abrasive leadership style—with Simon Hess, former principal at Chicago’s Gordon Tech High.

Some teachers dropped their support for a union in hopes that Hess would transform Civitas decision making and do a better job of including teachers’ opinions in school management decisions, says Goldrich. She too has high hopes for Hess, but voted for the union to ensure teachers would have a formal role in management decisions down the road, after Hess and others have left the organization.

So far, the work to form a cohesive teacher position is off to a sluggish start. Emily Mueller, also of CICS Northtown, has to date received only 20 responses to the survey that was distributed in early May. She expects a deluge of responses soon, however, now that Chicago ACTS has been officially approved.

Mueller would not discuss initial results of the survey, which consists of five open-ended questions about salaries, benefits, work load, due process and “innovations in the classroom,” such as curriculum and assessments.

For instance, Goldrich says freshmen social science teachers may have issues with a current events-based curriculum that has them rethinking coursework every year.

One reason teachers want a formal voice stems from a spat over summer school. Earlier this year, Civitas replaced summer school with evening school, a decision that created problems for students and long work days for teachers. Civitas has since relented and reinstated summer school.

But Goldrich sees the new union as insurance that similar decisions will not be made in the future without Civitas leadership first consulting with teachers.