Urban Prep, North Lawndale charters push to form union

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Brian Harris of Chicago ACTS speaks at a press conference about union organizing at charter schools.

Photo by Melissa Sanchez

Brian Harris of Chicago ACTS speaks at a press conference about union organizing at charter schools.

Citing excessive teacher turnover and a desire to share in how decisions are made at their schools, educators at Urban Prep Academies and North Lawndale College Prep announced today their intent to unionize.

If they’re successful, it would mean nearly one in four Chicago charter schools would be unionized, likely the highest union density of charter schools in any major school district in the country.

At a press conference Friday morning, teachers from the two charter networks – which are among the oldest and most well-regarded in the city – said they hoped that management at the schools immediately recognize their interest in joining the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) without calling for secret-ballot elections, a sometimes protracted process.

“Please stand with us and set an example for this city by showing that effective charter school management does not fear the accountability of the union,” said David Woo, an English teacher at Urban Prep’s Englewood campus. “We believe in the vision you created and we believe you will stand up for charter school teachers.”

But while administrators at the two charter school networks said they strongly support their employees’ right to organize, they expressed their preference for secret ballot elections, a process outlined in federal labor law.

“We believe this is a fair and democratic process that allows all teachers to have their voice heard, and we do not feel it would be appropriate to rely on any other process that would deprive our teachers of this fundamental right,” said Evan Lewis, Urban Prep’s chief operating officer, in a statement.

Christopher Kelly, his counterpart at North Lawndale, agreed: “If our employees choose to have such an election, then they will have the opportunity to vote, in private, whether they want to be represented by a union or not.”

Teachers from both networks said their major complaints aren’t about pay – though they wouldn’t mind more competitive salaries. (A union organizer described the salaries at both networks as “middle of the pack” when compared to those of other charter schools.) Instead, teachers said the workloads are overbearing and that they’d like a greater voice in how policies and budgets are created.

Susan Keiffer-Barone, an English teacher at North Lawndale, said she wants to see teachers included in program and policy planning, and to push the school toward instituting practices such as peer mentorship and team teaching.

Woo said organizing efforts at his school began in earnest last summer, and were inspired by both the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 and the successful unionization of teachers and staff at some Chicago International Charter School (CICS) campuses and the UNO network.

Even though there are two networks involved — meaning that there would eventually be separate contracts if they’re successful — educators decided to notify management that the majority of staff was interested in forming a union at the same time in a show of solidarity.

Union organizers say there are about 240 teachers and staff at the two North Lawndale and three Urban Prep campuses. If these employees are brought into the ranks of Chicago ACTS, that would push the union’s total to more than 1,000 members at 34 schools.

As school closures in Chicago have led to the layoffs of thousands of teachers in recent years, the growth of charter schools in the city has provided fresh terrain for labor organizing. Last spring, the charter union landscape shifted as UNO educators were preparing to vote on their first contract.  Since then, teachers at a fourth CICS also unionized.

Today’s announcement comes just days before the city’s municipal elections and teacher union activists took advantage of the political opportunity. Cook County Commissioner and mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia spoke at the press conference in support of the union efforts, while activists asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel to do the same.

But apparently Emanuel had already done so when asked by reporters earlier in the day. “Just as he was supportive when the teachers at UNO and other charter schools decided to organize with a union, Mayor Emanuel fully believes in the fundamental right of workers to bargain collectively,” said his campaign spokesman, Steve Mayberry, in an emailed statement.