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UNO Charter School Decision to Permit Unions is old Chicago Politics

March 27, 2013

Possible fact: Unionophobia ranks as more common fear amongst charter school leaders than arachnoboia, ophidiophobia and acrophobia combined.  Yet, unlike fear of spiders, snakes, and heights, fear of unions is rational. Unions give formerly dispersed employees greater bargaining power, forcing employers to compensate employees in the form of higher wages, benefits and less work.  Unions may also reduce flexibility, severely restricting the ability of the principal to hire, fire, and direct teachers.  And the list goes on…

In this case, why is UNO Charter Schools, a growing network of 15 charter schools in Chicago, actively encouraging its teachers to unionize?  That’s right.  Just a few weeks ago, they announced that that the Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, known as Chicago ACTS, would be allowed to enter UNO schools in order to encourage its teachers to unionize.

Why?   According the Chicago Tribune, “UNO officials said the move was made to ensure a better working environment and competitive pay for teachers and to build a spirit of collaboration instead of competition and polarization.”

Really?  How dumb does UNO think people are?  Less than a year ago, Rangel called the Chicago Teacher’s union, “totally irresponsible and reckless”?

First point:  If you run an organization and want to “a better working environment and competitive pay”, do you need your employees to unionize?

This logic makes sense if you are one of those people who never does anything unless you’re forced to do it.  For example, extremely obese people will get gastric bypass surgery to shrink their stomach’s size.  No longer able to consume ice cream by the quart and coke by the gallon, they lose weight.   Alternatively, an easily distracted worker could hire a person off of Craigslist to slap him in the face whenever his mind wanders.

It’s possible that UNO’s chief, Juan Rangel finds himself in a similar situation.  With no credible opposition on the other side of the negotiating table, he knows he would maintain Dickensian pay and benefits.  Then, in an epiphany, he looked deep inside himself and realized how unfairly he’d treated his teachers over the past years. Deeply self-aware, he knew he could never temper his own ruthless impulses.  As a result, he’s encouraging his teachers to unionize and force him to make concessions.  What strange behavior for a 30 year veteran of Chicago politics!

Second point: Does introducing unions into schools actually promote a “spirit of collaboration instead of competition and polarization”?

Recent Chicago history doesn’t add much weight to the notion that unionization encourages a “spirit of collaboration”.   The Chicago teacher’s strike in 2012 and recent protests against Chicago’s 50+ school closings, are certainly not signs of a “spirit of collaboration.”  In fact, this shows an extreme level of polarization between the central administration and teachers.

From another perspective, common sense does not reveal some underlying logic to Rangel’s pronouncement.  Sure, teachers might collaborate in order to clarify their demands in contract negotiations.  Also, comforted by the prospect of lifetime employment, teachers may stop worrying about raising test scores more than their peers.  Beyond that, I only see less collaboration and more polarization.  Rather than give some administrative responsibilities to teachers, as charter schools commonly do, Principals will have to go through the union.  Instead of that young and motivated teacher staying after school, his union colleagues may pressure him to head home right at 4, in compliance with the union-mandated work hours.  Unionization could make teachers material lives better, but I cannot believe that it will have a positive impact on school climate.

If UNO’s stated reason for allowing its teachers to unionize has no grounding in reality, what is the actual reason UNO is now encouraging its teachers to unionize?

Here’s my theory.

1.      UNO is a political organization first, and an education management organization second.  Founded in the 1980s, UNO has started off by organizing the Latino community in Chicago.  This naturally turned it into a political organization, capable of mobilizing large numbers of votes for one alderman or another.

2.      UNO is in deep trouble and it needs allies.  In February, the organization was found guilty of awarding large no bid contracts to family members of high level officers within UNO.  Such flagrant violations of public bidding rules and rampant nepotism must certainly diminish the organization’s prospects of opening even more charter schools.

3.      Like any organization, UNO surely aspires to expand, and hopes to keep all of it schools open at a minimum.

Putting all these together, UNO’s plan to encourage unionization could make sense.

Rangel, reeling from a scandal that’s left him with few political allies, decided to create a new one.   A good community organizer, he fully understands the potential impact of large organized groups.  Dispersed teachers, all acting individually, have no political power.  Unionized teachers, in contrast, represent a political force to be reckoned with.  Even better, it’s a force that will fight to keep UNO charter schools open and expanding.  A skilled politician and community organizer, Rangel surely knows how to influence those groups to fight for issues near and dear to his personal goals.  With a teacher’s union at its back, UNO will have extra clout when applying for new school licenses and fighting the closure of any underperforming schools.  Rangel’s salary stays high (at $250K he makes as much as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools) and UNO’s bloated central office continues to employ his cousins, friends, etc…

Unfortunately, Rangel’s plans are short sighted.  Allowing teachers to unionize will drive away UNO’s best principals and teachers; the freedom, flexibility and unrelenting focus on results is what attracts high performers to charter schools in the first place.    Once those talented people leave, performance will decline.  And, as we’ve seen, Rahm isn’t afraid to close underperforming schools.

The truth may be depressing, but at least it’s out there now.

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