04/03/2009

Teachers at Three Chicago Charters Seek Union Recognition

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Taking a historic step forward, the majority of teachers at three Chicago-area charter school campuses, joined by parents and community leaders, served notice on April 3 to their school officials, Mayor Richard M. Daley, Chicago school board members and the State of Illinois that they have formed a union. The teachers seek immediate recognition of their collective bargaining unit and a commitment by school officials to promptly bargain and settle a contract.

The teachers work at three Civitas Schools' Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS)-Wrightwood, Northtown Academy and Ralph Ellison campuses-under a charter held by the Chicago Charter School Foundation. They would be the first unionized charter school teachers in the Chicago area.

"We hope that, in the spirit of bettering our schools, our students' education opportunities and our communities, the schools' administration works cooperatively with our new union local as we move forward and settle a contract," says Amy Jacobs, a third-grade teacher at the CICS/Civitas Wrightwood Charter School.

Three-quarters of the total teaching staff at the three campuses signed union authorization cards to be the first unit represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the AFT and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. The number of teachers who signed cards well exceeds the simple majority required by law. State law allows charter school teachers to unionize if a majority have signed union authorization cards.

"We organized because a teacher's voice in a school's decision-making process will help create the best work environment for teachers and the best learning environment for students," says Emily Mueller, a high school language arts teacher at CICS/Civitas Northtown Academy Charter School. "We love our work, and a union gives us the security of being able to voice concerns and ideas without placing our jobs at risk."

Joyce Pae, a high school English teacher at the CICS/Civitas Ralph Ellison Charter School, notes the importance of attracting and keeping high-caliber teachers. "Our union will work to ensure that teachers get the right kind of professional development, resources and tools so our schools are places where the best teachers want to teach and parents want to send their children."

AFT leaders in Chicago and Illinois expressed their support for the charter school teachers to form their union. "Their dedication will help their schools become trailblazers of innovation and collaboration within the community," says Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart, who is an AFT vice president.

Illinois Federation of Teachers President Ed Geppert Jr., who also is an AFT vice president, adds that the statewide union's network of professional development training and support "would offer opportunities for CICS teachers to find new ways to reach out to students and the community, and continue to push for high academic achievement from all students."

The CICS teachers intend to work very closely with the communities in and around the schools. "We hope the teachers' union is recognized quickly, so they can start to do all in their power to lift our youth to even greater heights," says Martha Biondi, associate professor of history at Northwestern University and chair of the Chicago Workers' Rights Board.

Through its affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers, the CICS/Civitas unit of Chicago ACTS joins the nationwide Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, a community of educators at more than 70 charter schools in 10 states, who belong to AFT-affiliated unions. The national network allows charter school educators to share best practices and professional resources, and speak out on public policy issues that affect charter school teachers' jobs.

April 3, 2009