Chicago charter teachers and staff vote to join AFT

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Teachers and staff in the one of Chicago's largest charter school networks overwhelmingly have chosen the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the AFT and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, as their bargaining agent.

The decision involves more than 400 teachers and staff in 13 schools operated by the United Neighborhood Organization. In March, UNO and the AFT reached a neutrality agreement under which UNO agreed not to take a position on whether its teachers and staff organized. Some 87 percent of the 415 workers who voted approved Chicago ACTS as their bargaining agent.

The decision by UNO employees to join Chicago ACTS means that more than 20 percent of Chicago's charter school teachers and staff are now unionized—the highest union density where charter school employees do not automatically have a union.

"This is a turning point," says AFT president Randi Weingarten. "This has the potential to change the conversation between charter operators and teachers. It is a signal that the anti-union atmosphere and climate we've seen in charters may be changing. It is also an example of another charter school operator recognizing that it can't succeed without the voices of those who work most closely with students and can best advocate for what students need to succeed—things like smaller class sizes and a great curriculum.

"I am humbled and honored that the UNO educators see our union as their voice, and we will work hard collectively to live up to that trust," Weingarten adds.

Phil Mullins, chief operating officer for UNO, says a good relationship between UNO management and the union is essential in ensuring continued education reform.

"UNO has participated in a successful agreement with Chicago ACTS and the IFT-AFT. With this partnership, UNO continues to be committed to providing the very best public education for our more than 6,500 students and their families," says Mullins. "This also provides an opportunity for UNO and Chicago ACTS to begin to elevate the dialogue around school reform in the spirit of cooperation rather than competition."

In taking the step to unionize, teachers and staff recognized that having a collective voice enhances their ability to advocate on behalf of the students and families they serve, says IFT president Dan Montgomery, who is an AFT vice president.

"The UNO effort is a great example of what can happen when teachers and management work together for what's most important—the students," Montgomery says. "Teachers know firsthand what works in the classroom and how children learn best. Their ability to advocate for high-quality education with a collective voice will greatly benefit the students and our communities."

Brian Harris, president of Chicago ACTS, says UNO's position during the organizing effort sets a tone that should be followed by other charter school management companies.

"UNO's actions set forth a reasonable standard for other charter school operators to follow, and we expect them to follow similar law-abiding standards," Harris says. "Instead of taking a hard, anti-union line, UNO has simply followed the law and shown confidence in its employees." [AFT press release]

May 1, 2013