Some 30 teachers at an American Indian charter school in Michigan will vote later this month on whether to shrug off their year-old affiliation with the National Education Association and its state organization.
Leaders of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have said they would shut down the school as a charter entity rather than accept a union. The Michigan Education Association affiliate is a blow to tribal sovereignty, according to tribal leaders. And it runs against the tribe’s attempts to keep other unions from organizing at tribal casinos.
“Teachers have an understanding of what’s at stake and what would be jeopardized if they did allow the union to remain in the school,” said Nick Oshelski, the superintendent of the K-8 school.
Namely, the Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishinaabe School would revert to Indian status alone, losing its financing as a Michigan public school, Mr. Oshelski said.
But some teachers say the union is needed to ensure that teachers are treated fairly at the school in Sault Ste. Marie, snug against Michigan’s border with Canada.
Chris Gordon, who teaches tribal language, culture, and history at the school, said that under the superintendent before Mr. Oshelski, reprimands and firings had little relation to a teacher’s work. Mr. Gordon called in the MEA soon after the previous superintendent’s departure “so it wouldn’t happen again, so we would have some protection.”
Now, he said, the atmosphere of the 380-student school is poisoned by conflict over the union, which won a representation vote in October 2005. “If the vote succeeds [in ousting the union], certain people won’t be here next year,” he predicted. “My job and several others will be lost.”
On the other hand, if the union stays and the school is run on less money, it’s likely other jobs would be lost in cost-saving moves, particularly those of teachers’ aides.
The 35-year-old Mr. Gordon disagrees that the union local is a threat to the Sault Ste. Marie tribe, of which he is a member. “We’re entitled to a union under our own tribal constitution,” he argued. “And [our union] doesn’t affect the casinos.”
The tribe operates six casinos, five on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where it is a major employer. Only the tribe’s Detroit casino is unionized.
Indian tribes nationwide employ something like a quarter of a million workers in more than 400 casinos and associated businesses on Indian land. Just a few in California and the Northeast are unionized, making the rest a significant target for labor organizers. So far, legal rulings have held that tribal businesses can be unionized.
Charter schools, which are public but operate outside a traditional school district structure, are largely nonunionized, too, and teachers’ unions have vowed to make inroads there.
The tribe fought the effort from the beginning, according to David W. Crim, an MEA organizer, and Superintendent Oshelski. Before the 23-9 vote that established the union, tribal Chairman Aaron Payment threatened not to renew the lease the school holds on the building, which the tribe owns, Mr. Crim said. Mr. Payment did not return several phone calls.
Following the vote, the school violated labor rules by not appointing a legitimate bargaining team and by withholding regularly scheduled wage increases, according to an agreement reached by the school, the state and local unions, and the teacher who is heading the union-decertification drive. When the school pledged to pay the back wages, the MEA said the vote on decertification—allowed if a union local goes a year without a contract—could proceed.
“I expect it to be a close vote,” Mr. Crim said.
Teachers Better Off
Superintendent Oshelski, who is not a tribal member, said he understood that teachers were concerned about job security, given enrollment declines throughout the Upper Peninsula, and that they were looking for due process around jobs and grievances. “But,” he added, “they already have these protections in their staff handbooks.”
Complaints typical for teachers at other schools barely apply at Bahweting School, where about two-thirds of the students are Indian, he said. Because of its dual status as a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs school and a state charter school, it receives about double the per-pupil funding of other public schools in the area, or some $13,000 a student.
The school’s scores on state tests rank it among the top in the eastern Upper Peninsula and among the state’s charter schools.
Base pay for teachers in the nearby Sault Ste. Marie school district is $29,000, while Bahweting’s base pay is $31,500, and benefits are comparable, according to Mr. Oshelski. Classes are no larger than 20, and each class has an aide as well as a teacher.
Troy McBride, the 39-year-old kindergarten teacher who collected the 20 anti-union signatures required for the upcoming vote, called the situation “a big issue we got stuck in the middle of.
“I strongly felt enough people would vote the union out in order to save the school,” Mr. McBride said. “Honestly, I don’t see any other choice.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Mich. Charter Awaits Vote on Union