Union Rights Are Fundamental to Mission of Public Schools

04/29/2015 03:50 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

Recently, educators at five prominent Chicago charter schools announced their interest in forming a union. Mayor Emanuel supported the union drive, affirming his belief in the "right of workers to bargain collectively," pointing to his support for the teachers and staff at UNO charter schools in 2013. His support led to a streamlined process for organizing and certifying the union. Almost 90% of the staff joined the union, bargaining commenced within weeks, and the schools began to change for the better.

As of now, the executives of Urban Prep and North Lawndale schools have refused to follow this example, even though majorities of their staffs expressed support for a union. Teachers at these schools asked the executives to work with our union, the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), in a streamlined process like UNO's, so staff members can organize free of fear or undue influence and get to the bargaining table. In response, the school executives have insisted on having elections run by the federal labor board, and all of the red tape that entails. This process traditionally leads to delays and anti-union behavior from management that negatively impacts learning conditions.

Urban Prep CEO Timothy King recently authorized his schools' principals to hold captive-audience, anti-union meetings. The teachers said it seemed intended to make them feel like disloyal employees. Mr. King also sent a letter to parents that disparaged unions. Lionel Allen, the school's Chief Academic Officer, spoke disapprovingly about unions in a previous meeting with teachers. These meetings, which take teachers' time away from the work of serving their students, have been all too common when charter school executives discover educators discussing their right to organize.

Though North Lawndale's administration has not taken overt anti-union actions, they have been resistant to come to an agreement on a process for unionizing. Such an agreement, produced in cooperation between the administration and educators, would ensure that faculty and staff can talk about unionization without fear of reprisal. This small measure would show that the North Lawndale schools do not just teach social justice as part of its curriculum, but also put this value into practice through its operating policies.

Even though Illinois' Charter School Law intended these schools to be public, charter school executives have invoked the labor laws for private businesses to make the organizing process difficult, yet they wear the mantle of public institutions when seeking funding and policy changes. Charter executives seem to want it both ways, for the advantages of public funding and weaker private sector labor law.

As a teacher in a Chicago charter school, I see opposition to unions to be contrary to the democratic mission of public education. I wonder how our executives can reconcile this mission with the union-busting we've seen at many charter schools. How can we teach about democracy and celebrate union rights, while employers interfere in our efforts to exercise those rights? What do we say to our students?

Our public institutions are strengthened, not weakened, when workers exercise their rights. I wish executives could see that a voice at work for educators fortifies the school, bringing the intellectual assets of teachers and staff to school decision-making. Charter school executives cannot simultaneously claim to respect their teachers as valued professionals and fight tooth and nail to stop from having to negotiate a contract with them. Unions are not a threat but an expression of these educators' commitment to the long-term success of their schools.