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Unions Gain Foothold in Chicago Charters


Unions are starting to make a serious push into a segment of the education system from which they have been heretofore largely absent: charter schools. In mid-April we noted that the American Federation of Teachers was planning to organize employees of the United Neighborhood Organization, which runs 13 charter schools in Chicago. The vote has just been held, and the response was overwhelming: 87 percent of teachers supported the creation of a union chapter for UNO schools, and the union is now preparing for talks with the organization.

This is a relatively new development for charter schools, which have largely managed to steer clear of unions: The Wall Street Journal notes that only 12 percent of all charter schools in America are currently unionized. Given that many supporters of charter schools have cited the lack of union control as one of the key reason for their success, some observers are beginning to worry that if this becomes a larger trend, much of what is good about these schools will be lost:

Critics fear that greater union presence in charters could inhibit innovation. “These schools being unionized are going to begin very quickly to look exactly like the traditional public schools that they were set up in contrast to,” said Jeanne Allen, president of The Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports strong charters. “All of those union contractual rules are what created largely our inability to respond to kids’ needs more quickly as our society changed.”

We support the teachers’ right to form a union as a way of keeping management in line, so we have no problem with the result of this vote, although we would prefer a “co-op system” in which the teachers themselves are running the school. But if the lopsided totals in this vote are any indication of the mood of charter teachers at large, we’re likely to see unions gain more headway in charters as time goes on. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the larger movement, particularly in states less reliably blue than Illinois.

[Chicago union strike image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Anthony

    The U.S. needs a more thoroughgoing and systematic approach to educational improvment; charter schools unionized or not do not begin to address systemic reorganization needed in K-12.

  • rheddles

    The way to “keep management in line” is to have investors for whom they must earn a profit and customers who have the right to make a choice. Unions seek to “keep management in line” only to maximize returns to the unions. Ask the automobile industry. Or any other disappeared industry that was unionized in 1955.

  • John Burke

    Terrible development. The AFT and NEA will strangle charter schools with work rules. It’s inevitable and just a matter of time. What’s really needed is a return to the pre-60s ban on public employee unions, but since that barn door opened 50 years ago, there really is little hope for another generation of mostly minority kids in big city districts. Affluent people will do nicely. Private and parochial schools will continue to rescue a few of the most promising poor kids. But no one should make a mistake: If your kids are headed to high school at George Washington HS in upper Manhattan or DeWitt Clinton HS in The Bronx, they’re screwed — and New York City’s “ghetto” schools are by no means the worst in the nation.

    • Corlyss Drinkard

      I have two friends whose daughters are bound and determined to be teachers in the ghetto schools of NYC. I can’t imagine worse career choices for two young white women. At least one of them is a black belt in tae kwon do. The other has already had one nervous breakdown from her first encounter with a ghetto school. All I can do from where I am is pray for them.

  • wigwag

    “…we would prefer a “co-op system” in which the teachers themselves are running the school.” (Via Meadia)

    I admit that the idea sounds good; the pertinent question to ask is whether it’s realistic. Exactly how many industries or businesses can Via Meadia point to where what used to be called “worker self-management” has proven to be a viable business model?

    One need only go back about a quarter century or so to a time when employee stock ownership plans (ESOPS) were all the rage to see that what sounded good in theory didn’t work in practice. Admittedly education was never one of the industries where employee self management was tried, but based on the success that other industries experienced, the idea that teacher coops would work to improve education or improve employee morale seems doubtful. There was a time that many people thought the solution to labor problems in America was to insure union representation on corporate boards; that didn’t work either. If you don’t believe it, just ask Chrysler or American Airlines.

    Teachers for the most part aren’t stupid; they know that if their employers treat them like crap that they have options. One of their best options is to do what federal law empowers them to do; form unions and bargain collectively.

    There is a solution for charter schools and other businesses that don’t want to see union organizers knocking on their doors. It’s simple really; just stop treating your employees like crap. Employees who are treated well, fairly compensated and shown respect by their employers are much less inclined to form unions.

    The take home message to other charter schools from the United Neighborhood Association imbroglio is abundantly obvious; start treating your employees better of deal with the consequences.

    • LivingRock

      “start treating your employees better or deal with the consequences.”

      This just seems so subjective to me. What exactly is treating better in the case teachers? How have teachers been so mistreated that it needs improvement or deal with inevitable unionization?

      If treating better means job protection not based on performance, perpetuating the failed notion of tenured salary increases makes for better teachers, and an obsession with a low teacher to student ratio spreading salary dollars then count me out on treating teachers better.

      To me treating teachers better means developing a dynamic culture where teachers who work hard and get good results are handsomely rewarded, while those whose performance lags are held accountable.

      Paying one good teacher to teach 45 kids the combined salary of three mediocre teachers to teach 15 kids a piece is treating teachers and students better.

      • Joe Eagar

        Well, neither of you are entirely wrong. One of the important aspects of school choice is that by allowing creating destructive, the quality of school management will improve, since schools with bad management will lose out to schools with good management.

        In that case, teacher unions invading charters is a good thing; they’ll kill the badly managed ones. Their function would be to cull, not to fix.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    What a tragedy for ed reform. The foxes and the skunks are now in the hen house.

  • Charles R Harris

    This is what worries me about charter schools, they are still too closely tied to the school district. I’d much rather see vouchers as they would introduce more variety and competition. If a unionized school can compete, fine. If not, too bad.

  • Joe Eagar

    I don’t support the right of teachers (or any public employees) to set up unions. I think it’s a clear, unarguable disaster.

    I’m not happy with this conclusion, but if anyone has any evidence that education unions can be made to work, I’d be happy to hear it. Frankly, the sheer dysfunction of American union culture is astounding; it’s like they want to die out.

  • Corlyss Drinkard

    And while we’re on the subject of unions, I do wish WRM would express a good deal more skepticism of public employee unions and the need for their existence. Most of these unions didn’t exist until the 1960s, when even state and local governments could hardly be called “sweat shops.” My personal view is that there is no excuse for unions in America at all, period, with the existence of the Labor Dept. which addresses all the legitimate traditional workplace issues more than adequately. There is no legitimate rationale for public employee unions when the unions control who runs for political office and who gets elected in return for sweet heart deals from those same legislators. Even FDR was not so stupid as to endorse the creation of public employee unions, yet his camp followers in the 60s saw fit to create another sector of permanent cash subsidies at the expense of taxpayers. It’s time to stop this insanity and de-certify each and every public employee union in the nation, starting with the National Treasury Employees Union, the largest of the federal employee unions. They are all vipers in the bosom.

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