Why we took on Chicago’s charter schools

February 7, 2019

In the second historic charter school strike in Chicago in the last several months, 175 teachers at four Chicago International Charter School (CICS) campuses managed by Civitas Education Partners went on strike on February 5. This strike comes follows a successful walkout of 500 teachers at 16 Acero network charter schools in Chicago — the first charter school strike in U.S. history — as well as the successful two-week strike at The Accelerate Schools charter network in Los Angeles.

Chris Baehrend, an English teacher on release from Latino Youth High School, is chair of the charter division of the Chicago Teachers Union-Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (CTU-ACTS). It is the largest union of charter school educators in the nation, representing 1,000 workers in 34 of the 125 charter schools in Chicago. The union’s charter division, which had been a branch of the American Federation of Teachers, amalgamated with the CTU at the end of January 2018.

Paul D’Amato spoke to Baehrend two days before the beginning of the strike at CICS about how the union was built, the importance of social-justice unionism, the significance of the Acero victory and the prospects for the fight against CICS.

HOW DID it get to the point where you were organized enough to strike and win?

LET ME give you the story of how we organized at my school, Latino Youth High School. I started working there in August 2009. I found out that they had fired every teacher and every administrator the year before — 12 teachers and four or five administrators. People were walking around on tenterhooks.

I didn’t really know what a charter school was. There were no computers for classroom use. There were no textbooks. I had to teach a speech class, and the only book they had was a speech textbook from 1979. The internet was down, and the copier was broken at least half the time.

Teachers hit the picket line at a Chicago International Charter School
Teachers hit the picket line at a Chicago International Charter School (Chicago Teachers Union | Facebook)

Four weeks after we got hired, we had a “business meeting,” as they called them, and admin came in and told us they were increasing how much we pay in health insurance and reducing how much they pay, and that our health insurance was going up by 50 percent. “If you don’t like it, you can quit” was the message.

I sat in my room and was sad, when Sunshine came through the door. Joe Sunshine was a chemistry teacher. He came in and he said, “Chris, I just read that somebody in Chicago formed a union at a charter school.” I said, “Great. Let’s do that.”

A month later, Joe came to me and said, “I’m not doing the union thing anymore.” I asked, “Why not?” And he said, “No one’s helping me.” And I said, “You didn’t ask!” We quickly got almost everyone on board.

It was the summer of 2009 that the first charter school was organized — the one Joe Sunshine had read about. It’s the one that might be going on strike now: Civitas Federation of Teachers, not including Quest — Quest only got started in 2010 or 2011. But they’re run by the same [charter management organization].

So that school, plus the original three Civitas schools, are all run essentially by Civitas, which is this terrible shell game that we can get into later. I call them the unholy trinity because they’re three persons, three names, but they’re one. They’re all the same people on the board. It’s crafty way to eat our tax dollars.

We were the second wave of schools that organized. But essentially, from 2009 to when we picked up UNO [which became the Acero Schools in 2017] in 2013, we went from zero to 28 schools in the space of five years.

When I first started organizing a union at my school, the default assumption was that we have to support the idea of charters — we just want more rights. I thought, “This doesn’t sound like a good idea. Charter operators don’t have the best interests of the students in mind. They’re businesspeople.” And then the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) leadership came into the CTU.

Today, it’s completely the opposite. Since the Acero strike, I’d have a hard time finding five people who disagree. People get it now: the operators have business interests, we have student interests, and there’s a fundamental conflict there.

The merger with the CTU, having gone on strike, the fact that we won district pay — this was unimaginable. It was unimaginable to me a month before the strike. To be honest, the day before the strike, I thought we were going to settle, and settle short of what we were asking for.

WHAT WAS the most effective way that you were able to organize the schools?

IT REALLY was cold calling, reaching out and finding one person at a school who was willing to talk to a few other people, and then getting an organizing committee together. And it’s got to be very hush-hush because the boss will fire you if they find out.

Joe Sunshine got fired because they got a whiff that he was organizing a union. He went on to many different schools and got fired many different times for trying to organize a union.

HOW DID the union organize Acero?

WE HAD some talks with Acero, and they agreed to sign a neutrality agreement. This allowed union organizers to go in and talk to members of the school without management around. They agreed not to have captive-audience meetings. Once they signed the agreement, we immediately brought in organizers from around the country, and we went into the schools.

I remember the day before the news broke on the neutrality agreement, we were still phone banking. If you had neutrality agreements everywhere, or if it was law, everyone would join the union.

IT’S CLEAR that you take seriously the question of social justice unionism.

WE’VE HAD the best big sister union in the world that led the way on social-justice unionism: the CTU. We serve the same population of students, so the issues that CTU has been working on since 2010 resound with our members.

Although it wasn’t our members’ original instinct to say, “Oh, well, what they’re doing we should do, too.” It was like, “We live in a different world” — until we started to have talks about the merger with CTU.

I was always inspired by that, and had this lunatic dream that I could organize people on the front lines to be against privatization — these corporate, neoliberal interests that benefit from policies that are racist, sexist, classist and exploitative of the students that we serve. We can be a voice against that.

By 2015, we had grown to about 1,000 members. Usually at 1,000 members, a union can afford to have someone on release. The goal was to build a fighting, member-driven social justice unions — to get members activated in between contract campaigns, and around issues beyond bread-and-butter issues: issues about racial justice, social and economic justice, developing leaders of color.

This is a special challenge in the charter world because most operators — not all, some do a very good job of hiring persons of color, but many of them — do a really terrible job.

DID THE CTU support charter organizing from the beginning?

IN 2004, [current CTU President] Jesse Sharkey was put on a charter organizing committee. He was knocking on doors, talking to charter educators.

But the CTU wasn’t yet fully invested in organizing charter schools. Nor were they invested in stopping the proliferation of charter schools, which is why CORE eventually won power in the CTU in 2010. That’s how we got founded as a separate local. In 2010, when CORE came in, they became full partners.

In 2012, ahead of the CTU strike, our field rep at the time suggested that we take a resolution to the upcoming AFT convention against school closings and turnarounds. We formed a committee to do that. I thought, “I’m going to write language so we have something to start with.”

And as I wrote it, I realized it wasn’t just school closings and turnarounds, it was charter expansion that was driving the school closings and turnarounds.

At the AFT convention, it got through committee, but didn’t get to the floor. But it was an opportunity for us to work together, and it meant that our entire executive board realized that charter expansion is not good for the charter schools that already exist — it’s the same pile of money stretched further.

SO THAT’S how you were able to connect the issue of public schools and charter schools?

CHARTERS LIKE to call themselves “charter public schools.” I think actually that they are public schools. It’s all public money, all the students are public students. And the educators there are public servants serving the students.

District CTU members don’t think of themselves as Rahm Emanuel’s teachers. They’re Chicago teachers, teaching Chicago’s youth. Our interests are identical. This is just an extra board of privatizers. These are not “their” schools.

Jesse Sharkey won me over to this vision. He said that we should organize all the charters, build their standards up to where it’s just like public schools, and take the money away from the private operators. They won’t matter, because we’ll have the same union rights, and we’ll have the same funding in the classroom. I’ve come around to that thinking, and our members are on board with that, too.

The merger with CTU was an important moment of solidarity. We always thought it was a good idea, but when Trump got elected, we realized that Janus v. AFSCME was coming, that Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association was going to come back, and this ship might sail if we don’t take action now.

That’s another event that deepens my faith in members. For a CTU district member, it’s not an easy intellectual feat to say, “Those charter teachers who want their schools to succeed — the same schools that closed the school I was in, or they closed my friend’s school — but supporting them and wanting their schools to thrive is somehow in my interest too.” That’s not easy.

WHAT DID you win at Acero?

WE WON equal pay. That’s monumental. We got special education compliance written into the contract. Now we can file a grievance instead of just mounting a protest. I’ve never heard of another school district that has that in their contract.

We won funding at each school for restorative justice committees, and funding at each school for culturally relevant curricula. We won sanctuary schools and sanctuary employers’ language.

We got them to agree to network-wide “bumping” rights. They don’t have that in CPS, and it was one of the drivers that eliminated Black teachers, because we had all these schools in Black neighborhoods being closed. These veteran teachers didn’t have any right to take a job somewhere else.

WHAT DID you get for the paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs)?

WE WON pay scales for PSRPs, which is unheard of in the charter world. We’re hoping to get lanes in this contract we’re negotiating with CICS, which would mean that with an associate degree, master’s degree or PhD, there are bumps in pay.

We previously had a ceiling on PSRP pay — they couldn’t make more than $50,000. We had people bumping up against that. We got rid of that, which was a huge win. There was no pathway for instructional aides to become teachers. Now there is, but I haven’t read the details on that because we have eight other strikes popping up. We may have 13 CTU strikes in less than a year.

ARE YOU serious?

WELL, LET’S hope not. Let’s hope we can line them up to be acting together, because negotiations are in a similar place.

HOW HAVE you been able to get all the teachers with separate contracts to feel a sense of collective strength?

WHEN WE finally got a contract in 2013 for my school, Latino Youth, I started looking at other contracts and thought, “There’s stuff in these contracts I didn’t even know to ask for. We were one of the first to get steps and lanes, but there were a lot of wins that other people had as well, and there was no coordination.

In 2014, we realized that we had to line up all our contracts. My contract was the furthest out in 2018. So we said to the executive board, “Let’s try to have all of our contracts expire in 2018.” We ended up doing that. We have 10 contracts in renegotiation, and two new ones, and nine of them expired over the summer. Now we have 11 contracts in negotiations together, and we created a coordinating committee.

To set up a coordinating committee, we asked for two people from the bargaining team at each of those contracts to come together. It was a member-led process. We looked at the strongest language, and then we vetted it with our lawyers and with our field reps. And our coordinating committee would then look at that language. We improved it and came up with a really strong proposal.

Then each of those people took that back to their respective bargaining teams at the 10 different tables, and then came back to the committee with feedback from every table. And then we’d come to a consensus, “Okay, this is good,” with the idea of raising everyone’s standards.

In the summer of 2016, when I became acting president, I told everyone: “I’m putting together a committee to build an identity that’s beyond contracts.” Because we had all these different contracts, and each of us would fight on our own, but there was nothing uniting us to fight together.

Over the course of a year, we had over 45 people participate in a vision committee, and we ended up choosing three areas of work: protecting immigrant students; special education, which is a perennial problem; and doing something about the racism and the poverty that students experience outside the school. And how to work to change all these things.

The work of that committee fed into the year 2017-18, when we put together the coordinating committee. But different tables moved at different speeds. We were hoping to do it together, but it didn’t work that way. We wanted to coordinate on how we settle things.

ALL OF the 16 schools at Acero were unionized, but at CICS only four of the 14 are organized. Four schools will go out. What would that mean in terms of the other schools?

WHAT I can tell you is that on Monday [when the strike started], I would expect there to be organizers at those other schools saying, “Here’s members going on strike, and here’s what they want. You deserve it, too.”

We already sent a letter to CICS saying that if they try to bring workers from those schools into this school, then how could we not consider them under one common employer? If you’re able to move workers from one school to the other, then you’re one employer. That’s a pressure point we want to put on the employer.

Hopefully, there will be some teachers who say, “I work at CICS; they work at CICS. They say my employer is someone else, and that’s why I can’t have union rights and have more of a say in my school. Here are members taking action to make their school a better place.”

Hopefully, there will be some excitement and people will want to be part of that.

I’M ASSUMING that CICS teachers are pretty fired up.

OUR MEMBERS? Oh, yes. We had an action from those four schools, and people are in good shape. With the Acero strike, we were in good shape. You need lots of tests, and the more you do it makes people stronger.

WHAT DO you mean by tests?

ACTIONS THAT you ask members to participate in: Come to a rally, wear a button, sign a petition. We did straw polls before the strike. And the strike authorization was 98 percent at Acero, and 96 or 98 percent at CICS. Members are fired up.

At Acero, this had never happened before. I remember the first day of the strike, we picketed all the schools, and we all went to the CTU hall and had a rally there. We got on buses and went down to picket Acero headquarters. Acero has its headquarters in the Rookery building, which is my favorite building downtown. We had 500 members, and people felt so empowered.

On the bus on the way back, there were six or eight teachers I didn’t really know before, and I said, “This morning when you got up, how were you feeling?” They were quiet, and I said, “Oh damn, I really wish we didn’t have to strike.” They said, “Yeah.”

I said, “How do you feel now,” and they said: “We’re glad we’re on strike!”

It transformed people’s consciousness, their commitment to each other — you walk on the line together, and you know you’ve got each other’s backs. And their sense of who their boss is and whose school it is.

HOW DO you think CICS is going to respond?

THEY SEEM to be in no hurry about scheduling new bargaining dates, although on Friday, February 1, they scheduled dates over the weekend, which I think they kind of had to. At first, we had indications that they were not going to operate the schools.

Now we’ve seen some signs that they’re trying to recruit subs at time-and-a-half pay, and they’ve put a message out saying schools will be operating during the strike. We have some concern that we may see scabs on a large scale, which we didn’t see at Acero.

WHAT CAN people to do to support the strike?

COME TO a picket line and engage members around why you think this strike is important, why you respect the work that they do, although they do it in a charter. If you believe that our members should be proud of being fighters for public education, let them know that’s what you see them doing, and that’s what you see their role is.

This is why I’m really excited about organizing with teacher unions, and particularly at this moment in history. Unions are important, right? Unions are important because people deserve a fair share of the fruits of their produce. We’re all work slaves unless we own a factory or something like that. We should have a say over how our life is during that third of our life we spend working.

People take pride in their work, and it’s the same everywhere. But there’s something else about teaching students who are children in your care all day, and being with them as they grow. People never come to us to form a union and say, “Hey, I’ve been getting screwed on money. I really need a raise.” No, it’s “I’m so frustrated about these policies. Yes, I deserve a raise. But that’s not why I came here.”

My goal is to build a union that uses our collective power to advocate for students outside the classroom as well. My conception of what it is to be a social justice union leader, especially in a school context — which is the only context I know, really — is to get members to see that we can use our collective power.

If we can see that we can use our collective power to expand that scope of justice and equity, to be something that impacts students in their lives when they leave the classroom, that’s my goal as a union leader.

That’s something that the “red state” teachers’ rebellion showed, and now we’ve got a charter rebellion going on — it’s going to be the third charter strike.

We had a group of paraprofessionals at CICS who were petitioning to join the union, and the employer for four months said “no.” They voted to authorize a recognition strike. We have 130 members in the bargaining unit, and there are 40 paras who overwhelmingly signed up to join the union.

For four months, we petitioned. They were ready to take a recognition strike. They were told, “No, you’re going to have to come work in the schools when the teachers go on strike.” They said, “Screw that. We’ll do a recognition strike.” In the end, the employer agreed to recognize them.

We’re picking up wins that we never expected, and other people are hearing about it. I’ve been in contact with other unionized charter teachers in LA, who are taking heart from the strikes here and in LA. I’ve been in communication with fired-up unionized charter educators around the country who are taking heart from Chicago to Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and other educators around the world.

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