Teachers at Chicago’s largest charter-school network — run by the politically influential United Neighborhood Organization — have voted to organize into a union, labor and UNO officials said Wednesday.
UNO officials took the side of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago Public Schools during last year’s teachers’ strike, and the vote of UNO teachers does not mean they will be joining the Chicago Teachers Union.
Instead, more than 400 teachers and staff at 13 UNO schools in Chicago have become part of the Chicago Alliance of Charter School Teachers and Staff, known as Chicago ACTS. They will more than double the membership of Chicago ACTS in a move that national labor leaders hailed as a landmark in their efforts to unionize charters.
Labor leaders said the vote at the UNO schools was 87 percent in favor of joining Chicago ACTS, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
The financial impact on UNO of the teachers’ vote will not become clear until the new union members agree to a deal with the charter operator’s management.
But the move comes at a time when UNO’s aggressive expansion plans have come under threat. Last week, Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration suspended the flow of school-construction grant dollars to UNO, prompting contractors to halt work Tuesday on a new high school on the Southwest Side.
Quinn’s decision followed Chicago Sun-Times reports about insider contracting at UNO. Under the terms of a $98 million grant, state officials say, they should have been told that two brothers of a top UNO executive were hired as contractors on new school projects funded by the state.
If teachers and staff for UNO get a raise, it will put pressure on the charter operator’s other major funding source: the flow of tens of millions of dollars a year from the Chicago Public Schools. That money accounts for most of the UNO charter schools’ operating budget.
Payroll data obtained by the Sun-Times shows UNO teachers make only about $50,000 a year — more than $20,000 a year less than the average for Chicago Public Schools teachers.
The announcement last month that the organization would clear the way for teachers to join the union represented a sharp change for the fast-growing charter network. UNO CEO Juan Rangel, a co-chairman of Emanuel’s 2011 campaign, ran radio ads during the Chicago Teachers Union strike, noting how the labor unrest wasn’t affecting UNO’s nonunionized schools.
Proponents of charters often shun unions, arguing that they should have more flexibility than regular public schools to improve education by firing poorly performing teachers or extending the school day.
Brian Harris, president of Chicago ACTS, said he hoped nonunion charter operators would follow UNO’s example.
“Instead of taking a hard, anti-union line, they have simply followed the law and shown confidence in their employees,” he said.