New charter school unions spring up coast to coast

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Charter school educators across the country are staring down legal appeals, "boss" campaigns and winter weather to exercise their right to form a union. Despite challenges coming from employers in both the public and private sectors, three new charter school unions have formed in recent days.

On Feb. 7, in the shadow of Michigan's recent passage of so-called right-to-work legislation, teachers and counselors on the four campuses of Cesar Chavez Academy won an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board after a dramatic five-month campaign. The employees filed a petition with the labor board in Detroit on a rainy day in December; they returned to their campus to join hundreds of rain-soaked parents and community members demonstrating in support of the union drive.

The rally and media coverage served notice to the charter holder, the Leona Group, that employees in Detroit's biggest charter district were determined to unionize. The Leona Group is one of the nation's largest for-profit educational management companies. Cesar Chavez Academy is the second-largest charter school district in Michigan.

Throughout the drive, Detroit community members and parents had been visible, appearing at charter board meetings with a growing number of teachers who wore union buttons. State Rep. Rashida Tlaib was an articulate early supporter, along with the Rev. David Bullock, who is president of both the Highland Park NAACP and the Detroit chapter of Rainbow PUSH, and parents from Mujeres Mejorando Educacion (Women Improving Education).

The ballot outcome of the Feb. 7 election was 88 for the union, 39 opposed. Said Becky Wilinski, a middle school social studies teacher at Chavez Academy, "We are reminding Gov. Snyder that workers in Michigan still have the right to say 'union, yes!'"

The Detroit victory was the first election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board since a December ruling that charter schools may be considered private sector employers. In the same week, teachers at two other charter schools successfully won access to the path toward certification under their states' public sector labor laws.

In the West Valley of Los Angeles, teachers at Ivy Academia received voluntary recognition of their union after 54 (out of 56) faculty signed a union petition. Ivy is one of a handful of high-performing charter high schools in the area; United Teachers Los Angeles now represents more than 1,600 educators at independent charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "This move is to ensure a stronger learning environment for students," says Tom Kuhny, a teacher on the De Soto campus, "and open communication between teachers, administration and parents."

On the East Coast, educators at New Roots Charter School in Ithaca, N.Y., received voluntary recognition of their union in January. New Roots, as suggested by its name, is a high school committed to social justice and a sustainable and "green" education.

These recent union victories in charter schools across the country demonstrate that, while there may be no single public or private sector path to unionization in charter schools, educators are winning a voice by seizing whatever path is open to them. [Connie McKenna]

February 8, 2013