Teaching Profession

Depleted New Orleans Teachers’ Union Vows to Rebuild

By Vaishali Honawar — May 09, 2006 4 min read
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The three-story building that was once the United Teachers of New Orleans’ office is dark and deserted, the first floor damaged by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters. There are no utilities.

“Everything is brown and dead,” said Brenda Mitchell, the president of the union, whose membership is down from 4,700 before the storm to 300.

Nat LaCour

The local affiliate is being kept afloat with help from its state organization and the American Federation of Teachers.

This past February, the school board fired almost its entire workforce, including 7,500 teachers, custodians, bus drivers, and kitchen staff. Before Katrina, the district operated 117 schools, and UTNO counted 90 percent of the teachers, paraprofessionals, and clerical staff in New Orleans schools as its members.

Of the 25 schools that are now open in the city, only five are regular public schools. The rest are charter schools where individual teachers may belong to the union, but have no collective voice in bargaining with their employers.

And future teaching jobs are likely to be in charter schools, given that most of the 112 schools in the state-run “recovery district” will be administered under charters with organizations that bid to operate them. The state’s plan for how it will manage the recovery district is due to the state legislature on June 1.

Nat LaCour, a former UTNO president who is now the secretary-treasurer of the AFT in Washington, said New Orleans charter school leaders have tended to be “anti-union.” Even so, he said, “I am certain that most [charter school members] would want to be under contract.”

But others aren’t sure whether the union has much hope of recovering.

“It is hard to build a union in a system that’s not organized, and it may be a slow process,” said Bruce Cooper, an education professor at New York City’s Fordham University.

A New Model?

Paul T. Hill, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle, said the union’s future might lie in embracing a new model: a system where teachers at each school sign up as members.

“Each school would have its own bargaining unit,” he said, agreeing that his idea could be a complicated process and leave the union without the power to affect a majority of the teachers in the city. “But some people think that’s how teachers’ unions will eventually evolve,” he added.

Mr. Hill said it generally appears as if teachers in charter schools are reluctant to join unions unless significant problems with the management emerge. Brian Riedlinger, the instruction director of the Algiers Charter School Association, which operates five charter schools in New Orleans, said the association’s contract with the school board specifies that it will not participate in collective bargaining.

He said administrators take extra steps to ensure that any dissatisfaction among teachers is addressed at the schools.

“We are trying to be sensitive and to listen to their concerns,” he said.

The South as a region has not supported unions, noted Gene Geisert, an education professor at St. John’s University in New York City.

“So it is natural that if a citizens’ group tries to set up a charter school or has a company manage a charter school, they are going to look first to operate it without unions,” said Mr. Geisert, who was superintendent of the New Orleans schools in 1974, when United Teachers of New Orleans was the first in the Deep South to win collective bargaining rights.

Not Giving Up

To Ms. Mitchell, who says she cannot foresee New Orleans as a “city of charters,” the system taking shape is a “level-5 disaster” designed to doom the once-powerful teachers’ union.

Working from her temporary digs—a room at the offices of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers in Baton Rouge—she vowed to continue her fight to bring displaced teachers back to New Orleans and ensure they get their jobs back.

She is constantly on the road, traveling between Atlanta, Houston, Birmingham, Ala., and other cities, trying to reach out to former members. The union also has volunteers in 25 cities, working to coordinate and talk with teachers.

Although it has not had a strike for more than a decade now, UTNO has successfully called workers away from their jobs, sometimes for weeks, over the decades. In 1978, 3,500 of the 5,000 public school teachers in the city went on strike to demand better pay and benefits. In 1990, 3,000 teachers went on strike to demand a raise.

Union leaders say they are open to new ideas. Ms. Mitchell said she has already been in conversations with some charter school teachers and managers.

“No one knows where New Orleans is going today,” said Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers. “But there is no inclination on the part of the leadership to surrender to someone’s vision of a district without teachers having a voice or the right to bargain.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 10, 2006 edition of Education Week as Depleted New Orleans Teachers’ Union Vows to Rebuild

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