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Published in Print: September 9, 2015, as Unionization Bid Sparks Discord In L.A. Charters

Unionization Bid Sparks Discord in L.A. Charter Network

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A bid to unionize a popular Los Angeles-based chain of charter schools has led to a protracted battle between the schools' management and the district teachers' union, at least temporarily stranding some 700 teachers in labor limbo.

The situation at the 27 campuses of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools illustrates the tensions charter organizations face as they evolve and mature: Merit pay, benefits, and governance—all treated differently in many charter schools than in regular public schools—are key points of concern for teachers embracing the union drive.

The conflict is also emblematic of sharp divisions already established in the Los Angeles district's unique schooling landscape. Charters in Los Angeles are praised for generally outperforming traditional schools, but have also been criticized for high rates of teacher turnover. The district school board's members—typically backed either by philanthropists supportive of charter growth or by a teachers' union opposed to it—have long been divided over the role of the typically nonunion schools.

Charters have expanded steadily in the city, but so have other school models favored by the United Teachers Los Angeles, such as "local initiative schools," which are unionized but freed from some work rules. In light of that tension, a successful bid to unionize Alliance schools would come as a symbolically important win for the UTLA.

"We can argue about outcomes, but if there's any success the charter movement has had, it's de-unionization," said Christopher Lubienski, a professor of education policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the UTLA, "this is a foot in the door. It's not a two- or three-school mom-and-pop shop. It's a major chain."

Information or Intimidation?

Unionized charter schools remain rare nationwide, in part because with charters unions must do the painstaking work of organizing at a building-by-building level.

Nevertheless, both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have spent more time and energy of late on charters, including hiring staff explicitly devoted to organizing those schools. (The UTLA is affiliated with both organizations.)

About a fifth of Los Angeles' 211 charter schools are currently unionized, though not all by the UTLA.

Now just over decade old, Alliance schools have expanded rapidly and currently educate some 12,000 mostly low-income children.

The unionization drive within Alliance dates at least as far back as March, when at least 70 teachers informed the organization that they planned for the UTLA to represent them and wanted to reach agreement on a neutral organizing environment free from interference from management. (California labor law requires a majority of employees to sign authorization cards before an employer must recognize a bargaining unit.)

But by the end of last month, the UTLA/Alliance Educators had filed three charges of unfair practices with the state's Public Employment Relations Board, alleging that Alliance management violated labor laws by refusing to meet with organizers and retaliating against one teacher active in the union drive.

Alliance officials don't dispute that they've resisted unionization. A website the group created, at www.ouralliancecommunity.com, hosts a number of fact sheets contending that performance bonuses and other perquisites could be at risk under a labor contract. It also highlights the UTLA's general opposition to charter school growth, and features an online petition that asks teachers and parents to sign in support of an "independent Alliance."

But the organization denies that it has violated labor laws, contending that its actions are meant to give a fuller picture of what teachers might face with a union in the picture.

"We dispute that that is considered coercion or interference. It's passive information," said Catherine Suitor, the director of development and communications for the charter network.

Differing Perspectives

Even in a network like Alliance, school cultures and teachers' previous experiences vary greatly, shaping perspectives on whether a union would be an aid or a hindrance.

Elana Goldbaum, 31, a high school history teacher at Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School, said unionization would ensure that teachers' concerns carry weight with administrators.

"There's a big difference from when the decisionmakers get to decide when they want to take your input, versus being accountable to taking the input," she said. "When there's no legitimate system, a lot of our concerns fall through the cracks."

Alliance's benefits package is a central concern for teachers as the organization grows larger and older, and as more staffers have families, Goldbaum said. Another concern is compensation, which is now heavily dependent on a performance-evaluation system not all teachers trust.

"The pressure under the system is extraordinary. I can't even describe it," Goldbaum said.

Serving as counterpoint is William "Kip" Morales, 53, who has spoken against unionization. A technology teacher at Alliance Susan & Eric Smidt Technology High School, he said he's been able to win raises of more than 30 percent under the performance system and has a good relationship with his principal.

And Morales has a particular reason to be suspicious of the UTLA. Seven years ago, in his first year teaching at a regular Los Angeles public school, he was laid off under reverse-seniority rules and felt that the union didn't do enough to advocate for teachers' jobs.

"Why bring in an organization whose track record is a big fail?" he said. "They haven't represented teachers well in negotiating with L.A. Unified."

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Such complexities show why it's still unclear how many Alliance teachers would vote in favor of unionization.

By the end of the previous school year, nearly 150 teachers had signed a petition indicating their support of the union. But Alliance officials said that number is out of date, claiming that 40 percent of those teachers left the network voluntarily at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

A vote by the current teachers is unlikely until after the state labor board ruling on the charges against Alliance. A hearing is scheduled to begin Nov. 2.

Vol. 35, Issue 03, Pages 1,14

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