Organizing in a pandemic: A charter school goes union

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Since its founding in 2011, Washington, D.C.’s Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School (on P St.) has racked up an impressive number of firsts: It was the first green charter school to open in the city. Then it became the first charter school in the city to ratify a first contract after forming a staff union and joining the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (DC ACTS). At the same time, Mundo Verde opened another new bilingual school nicknamed Calle Ocho (it’s located on Eighth St.), which led to another first: Calle Ocho became the first D.C. charter school to organize its own union in the midst of a pandemic.

Mundo Verde pre-K teacher Fabiola PeneroMundo Verde pre-K teacher Fabiola Penero

But that part wasn’t so easy.

First came the task of transforming an empty building into a well-resourced and welcoming school with a green mission: educating young people to become global stewards in an increasingly complex world.

Fortunately, many staffers had been trained at the first Mundo Verde campus; so they could design a green curriculum and carry the green ethos from the original school to the new one. What they could not bring with them was the union they’d fought for at the first school. And in the complex dynamics of a new school’s launch, they felt the absence of the “union voice” for which they’d fought so hard just a few months before.

Lead pre-K teacher Fabiola Penero says, “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we have to start this tough union fight all over again?’” She began having quiet “organizing conversations” in Calle Ocho’s new hallways.

Meanwhile, the new members of the P Street union had not forgotten their colleagues across town. “Some of the Calle Ocho staff had fought hard with us for this union,” says kindergarten teacher Andrea Molina, a bargaining team member, “and there was no way we would leave them behind.”

In December 2019, the P staff voted to ratify their first contract and in January, Calle Ocho teachers learned they too could join that union if they collected a majority of signed authorization cards from their peers. The process, called “card check,” was negotiated by the AFT; Penero and allies went to work, collecting signed cards.

The organizing pace picked up in late February as a coronavirus pandemic spread across the U.S., and school administrators in urban hot spots began to contemplate a school shutdown. At Calle Ocho, teachers focused on card collection, and Penero began to scan signature cards in preparation for a card count.

The day before the Calle Ocho doors slammed shut, Penero says, she collected two final cards, which took the union well beyond a majority.

Then, with school closed and teachers launched on the huge project of distance learning, a new negotiation commenced. How does a school conduct the legal process known as “card count” during a pandemic?

The answer pointed toward another first for DC ACTS: The card count would happen on Zoom.

On May 4, Kristin Scotchmer, executive director of Mundo Verde, was joined by the school’s legal counsel to examine and count the signature cards, delivered by PDF and seen onscreen through Zoom. Says DC ACTS’ new President Sara Ozment, “It was a show of the trust we share with our administration. There were no challenges to the signatures.”

Says Penero, “I won’t ever forget the moment when our executive director looked up from the cards and declared, through Zoom, ‘You’ve got your union.’”

What now unites both Mundo Verde campuses is an exemplary contract, negotiated by the AFT and DC ACTS, and ratified on May 15. It reflects the productive relationship that Mundo Verde administrators and staff have carefully sustained at the bargaining table, with these positive features:

  • Regular raises each year of the contract (a salary increase between 5 and 18 percent over the three-year contract);
  • Substantial annual bonuses for instructional staff who are bilingual, or board certified or have master’s or Ph.D.;
  • Paid sick days that roll over; plus religious and bereavement leave;
  • Paid time off: three days for 10-month employees; 20 days for year-round staff;
  • Parental leave: eight weeks of paid leave for any new parent (beginning July 1 this year;
  • School committees on discipline, school culture, healthcare benefits and more—with equal staff and management representation; and
  • No more “at-will” employment.

AFT President Randi Weingarten praised the contract, saying, “This is how collective bargaining is supposed to work. It’s refreshing to see administrators and educators come to the table to problem-solve. The contract is proof positive that by working together, we can help make the school an even better place for kids to learn and thrive.” She noted that “the contract ensures hourly staff are paid a living wage” and lauded it for paying special attention to non-instructional staff—cafeteria, operations and extended day—to ensure that they, too, will receive additional compensation for certifications and extra training.

DC ACTS President Ozment says it was important to bring in Calle Ocho staff as the pandemic spread so everyone could benefit from the contract’s layoff language. Mundo Verde’s non-instructional staff cannot do their jobs via Zoom. If a layoff must occur, the new contract requires 30-day layoff notifications so employees have time—and paychecks—to cover them as they seek new jobs. This kicked in when layoffs took place in March. At the same time, staff in the after-school program were also paid to develop enrichment activities on video.

Ozment is now engaged with Mundo Verde administration in conversations about safety in school reopening in August. This, too, is another first, she says. Stay tuned.


[Connie McKenna]