Teaching Profession

‘Now It’s Our Turn': Statewide Walkouts Embolden Charter Teachers to Join Union

By Brenda Iasevoli — May 02, 2018 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

On Wednesday, teachers at three schools in the Alliance College-Ready Public Schools charter network became unionized. The three schools employ about 100 of the 730 teachers and counselors across 25 Alliance schools, all of which are located in the Los Angeles area.

A majority of teachers at these schools—Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy No. 5, Alliance Gertz-Ressler Richard Merkin 6-12 Complex, and Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Technology Academy High School—signed union authorization cards this morning, making United Teachers Los Angeles their union. (California labor law requires a majority of employees to sign authorization cards before an employer must recognize union representation.) Alliance teachers’ movement toward unionization dates back to 2015 (you can read more about the initial bid here).

Alliance issued a statement acknowledging that teachers, after more than three years of trying to organize the entire network, succeeded in winning UTLA representation at three of its schools. “As always, we remain committed to making sure that all of our educator voices are heard and counted as this process moves forward.”

The teachers pushing for union representation say they expect other Alliance schools to follow suit.

“We have the support of teachers across the network,” Sylvia Cabrera, a resource teacher at Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy No. 5, told Education Week. “It’s just a matter of time before they join us. We will talk to other schools, we’ll meet with teachers, survey them, and help them through the whole process. We are going to help other teachers understand what a union can do for them.”

Key points of contention include how decisions are made at the schools and a merit pay system that is tied to teacher observations and standardized test scores.

‘We Want a Voice’

Some teachers have been critical of the Alliance school administration’s efforts to seek teacher input through online surveys and problem-solving committees. Edgar Hermosillo, a history teacher at Alliance Technology Academy High School, said the administration never acts on the suggestions that teachers make. Hermosillo served on a committee charged with giving feedback on a teacher-evaluation rubric that included standards he felt were impossible to reach, and yet which determined merit pay.

It became clear, Hermosillo said, that administrators had no intention of acting on the teachers’ suggestions. "[Alliance] likes to play the game of focus groups and online surveys and literally nothing ever changes,” he said. “We want a voice at the table.”

That more schools in the Alliance network haven’t taken steps toward union representation speaks to the fear administrators have created, said Alisha Mernick, an art teacher at Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School. She pointed to what she called Alliance’s “anti-union campaign.” After UTLA filed complaints with the California Employment Relations Board in June 2016 alleging that Alliance officials were intimidating teachers and parents, a judge ruled that administrators impermissibly blocked union organizers from schools and interfered in the drive by redirecting emails from United Teachers Los Angeles into teachers’ spam folders.

Just this week, according to Mernick, principals at a couple of schools have made tearful speeches warning against unionization. At least one principal has threatened to quit if teachers unionized.

Alliance officials don’t deny resisting efforts to unionize, but they insist they haven’t done anything illegal. After teachers’ bid to unionize in 2015, the charter chain created a website to support its view that performance bonuses could be at risk under a union contract. It also warns that UTLA’s opposition to charter school growth threatens Alliance’s very existence. An online petition asks teachers and parents to sign in support of an “independent Alliance.”

“We dispute that that is considered coercion or interference. It’s passive information,” said Catherine Suitor back in 2015, when teachers’ unionizing efforts were just beginning.

The California Employment Relations Board agreed that tactics, including statements to parents and teachers suggesting that unionization would result in a loss of flexibility and autonomy at the schools, were not coercive or threatening. But it also directed Alliance not to interfere with UTLA’s right to access and employees’ rights to be represented by UTLA.

Two teachers at an Alliance school that did not unionize this week published an op-ed on LA School Report telling UTLA to back off. “For the past three years our jobs have been made even more difficult by a high-pressure unionization campaign by United Teachers Los Angeles targeting hundreds of teachers on Alliance’s 28 campuses. As we pass the third anniversary of this campaign, it is time for it to end. We are calling on the union to leave our schools, our fellow teachers, and our scholars alone.”

Unionized charter schools remain a rare breed. About 11 percent of charter schools nationwide are unionized, down slightly from 12 percent in 2010, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Unions, undeterred, have stepped up efforts to organize charters.

“Here in California we have a collective bargaining law that covers public charter school educators, but in order for teachers and counselors to have a voice and a right to sit down with their employer at the bargaining table, they must first organize and be part of a union. That happened today,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl in a statement.

Alliance teachers felt emboldened by educators in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado who have staged walkouts in order to push for higher pay, better benefits, and increased school funding. They also cited as a source of inspiration the ratification of a first union contract by California Virtual Academy online charter schools that included a 17.8 percent wage hike and class-size limits after teachers at the school threatened to strike.

“Across the country teachers are taking back education from those calling the shots, many of whom never stepped foot in a classroom,” said Mernick. “Now it’s our turn. Organizing can be challenging, but we do this because it is necessary.”

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.