There were kind words spoken of Barack Obama, the Chicago organizer who stepped into the Oval Office, and of the late Albert Shanker, the substitute teacher who led the country's most powerful teachers' unions — and the crowd applauded them.
The standing ovation, however, was for Jeremy Ly, a 4th grade teacher at Chicago International Charter School. Ly's efforts to unionize his school brought hundreds of teacher union members to their feet yesterday at the 9,000 square-foot Union Hall in Chicago's West Loop.
It is a fight he has not won, and union leaders call it typical of an age-old workers' struggle. But Ly's effort benefits from an alliance between teachers at charter schools, like him, and those at traditional public schools, like most of the 32,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union.
"Dividing and conquering organized labor is a centuries-old practice," Ly said yesterday at the Teachers Union meeting. "We must not let them divide us."
Charter schools are public schools that get taxpayer dollars to operate, but they are free from bureaucracy and many school regulations that supporters say can hamper innovation in regular public school classrooms.
Since the first charter schools opened in the early 1990s, unionized public-school teachers have seen them as a threat to enrollment in their classrooms, and therefore a threat to their jobs.
"We thought charter-school teachers were taking our jobs and taking our students," says Debra Blackmon-Parrish, a district supervisor at the Teachers Union and public-school teacher at Chicago's Songhai Learning Institute. "That's how we felt because that's what we were told."
Now, says Blackmon-Parrish, the message has changed.
"It's not like that at all," she says. "They're teachers just like we are, and they have rights just like we do."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, is quick to point out that her predecessor, the iconic Shanker, was an early supporter of charter schools. Weingarten's speech to the Teachers Union yesterday backed Ly and his fellow teachers, and it electrified the room with shouts that belied her small frame.
Weingarten explains that the perception of acrimony between unions and charter schools could stem from funding formulas that pit one kind of school against another. She acknowledges that "maybe it is a nuanced position," emphasizing that it is not animosity.
"We actually always embraced charter schools," Weingarten says. "What you're seeing is a frustration that there's not a level playing field."
Still, Illinois is not as receptive to charter schools as some other states. Unlikes some states, Illinois places limits on how many charter schools can operate in the state.
And the Chicago Teachers Union went to court to fight the launch of a "virtual" charter school that opened in Chicago in 2006.
Ly argues that because his charter school receives public money, it should be subject to the same labor practices of regular public schools.
"In every essence, it is a public school," Ly says.
So far, the tactic has not worked.
Earlier this month, Ly and fellow teachers at three of Chicago International's 12 campuses filed a petition to unionize with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Ly says administrators at the charter school have meanwhile turned to the National Labor Relations Board, causing a question over jurisdiction and stalling negotiations.
"They could voluntarily recognize us today and start the bargaining process," Ly says of administrators. Instead, "they're paying lawyers all this money."
E-mail and voice messages left for Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of Chicago International Charter School, were not immediately returned.
Illinois charter schools currently educate more than 32,000 students on 76 campuses, according to the Illinois Network of Charter Schools. Overall, Illinois has more than 2 million schoolchildren.