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CTU discussing merger with union for Chicago charter schools

Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president. | Maria Cardona / Sun-Times

The Chicago Teachers Union is taking steps to merge with the union that represents many of the city’s charter schools.

A merger — potentially the first of its kind — would turn the growing ChiACTS union for charter school staffers into a division of the CTU, which is the country’s oldest teachers union.

However, contracts for CPS-employed teachers and those hired by publicly funded, privately managed charters still would be separate, according to Chris Baehrend, president of ChiACTS Local 4343.

Both unions still need to approve the proposal, according to a letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times that was sent by the union to the hundreds of CTU governing delegates.

ChiACTS members — the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff — would vote as soon as June. Then CTU members would have a say likely in the fall.

“We believe that unification is a key step to allow educators to speak with one voice in Chicago, halt privatization and bring additional resources to our collective work at the CTU,” the letter says. “That said, merging two dynamic locals into a single union is a delicate process and will inevitably bring challenges and tensions. We must be intentional about addressing both sets of members’ questions, concerns and commitments to having a clear voice, representation and identity within the new, larger organization.”

One of the concerns involves dues for all members. On average, charter teachers earn less than their counterparts in CPS-operated schools.

“We’ve got the same problems with the school budget, same problems with financial oversight and having a say in how budgets are spent,” Baehrend said. “The majority of our schools have seen enrollment decline, budget cuts and layoffs. . . . We’re really facing the same problems and then if you really think about it, it doesn’t matter who cuts our check. We’re servicing the same kids.”

He continued, “We face a lot of opposition and I think what unions have learned throughout history, whatever crisis we face, the answer has been about more solidarity.”

ChiACTS members recently threatened strikes against three of Chicago’s charter school operators — the UNO Charter School Network, ASPIRA charter schools and Passages Charter School.

None of the threatened strikes — which would have been the first in the nation of charter teachers — happened. Most recently, the Passages contract disputes was settled late last week, shortly before a strike deadline.

The membership of the Chicago Teachers Union has been dwindling as Chicago Public Schools officials have closed schools and cut staff at its schools while expanding its charter portfolio.

The CTU once considered charter schools the enemy, and it bargained hard in its most recent contract for a cap it won on charter schools expansion. But the union since has embraced ChiACTS as that union has organized staffers in 32 of about 130 charter schools in Chicago. Both unions use the same attorney for contract negotiations, and CTU organizers frequent ChiACTS picketing events, too.

Last week, CTU President Karen Lewis told reporters that “charter schools are here, they’re not going anywhere. So the key is, how do you make them a bitter pill to their management companies? It’s the management companies we have the issues with, not the charter teachers, not the students, not the parents.”

“The key is, organize people to to fight for fair conditions of work then that’s good for everybody,” she said

The CTU’s continued anti-charter lobbying is why Andrew Broy, who heads the Illinois Network of Charter Schools representing the state’s charter management organizations, believes the merger he calls “a hostile takeover” won’t actually benefit charter teachers.

Broy said ChiACTS “doesn’t have the resources or wherewithal to do the kind of things CTU does.”

“I wouldn’t take the rhetoric at face value,” he said. CTU leaders “still want to undermine charters, they’re just doing it through different a public posture.”

Neither Broy nor Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers had heard of a similar merger elsewhere.

Richmond said districts in other states have unions representing teachers in both district-run as well as publicly funded, privately managed charters.

But in California, the existing teachers union kept staffers at schools that were converted to charter schools, and in Wisconsin, “they tend to be new, specialty schools launched by the district in order to (a) serve a special population or offer a unique program, while (b) getting hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal charter school start up money,” he said.