New Charter School Union, Same Union Playbook

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By Cheryl Coleman

Some interesting statistics about teacher union influence in charter schools came out recently. If you look at the topline finding—a declining percentage of charter schools are unionized—you might conclude that the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association are becoming less successful in their campaigns to bring charter staff into their ranks. Unionized charter schools, which have always been rare except in states where they must be unionized, have slid from 12.3 percent of all U.S. charter schools in 2010 to 11.3 percent in 2017.

A statistic deeper in the report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is more illuminating: the percentage of unionized charter schools that are part of networks. Schools run by a nonprofit or for-profit manager as part of a network, as opposed to single-site schools that operate independently, have increased from 10 percent eight years ago to nearly 20 percent now.

For anyone looking to understand the unions’ strategy vis a vis charter schools, this is the measure to watch. As one union observer put it in Education Week, it “makes more sense for [unions] to spend their energy going to a place where they can get more teachers and more schools.” One-offs are hard.

You can see this network-focused strategy at work in Washington, DC, where AFT won its first union vote last June by going into a middle school that belongs to a small network of charter schools named for Cesar Chavez. If you think the AFT’s choice to start charter unionization in the nation’s capital didn’t have anything to do with the school being named for a legendary labor leader, then you don’t know Randi Weingarten. As AFT’s president, she aspires to such fame herself.

As differently as public charter schools work from traditional district-run schools, you would think AFT might adjust their posture or tactics to be more responsive to teachers who’ve chosen to work outside the strict bureaucracies of school district, or to appeal in a different way to parents who may have chosen a charter school precisely because it’s not under the thumb—and adult-centered labor contract—of a union.

Nope.

At the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy, the AFT is running the same playbook it would in big-city union strongholds. Except this isn’t a contract negotiation with Chicago Public Schools. We’re talking about a single middle school with a few hundred students. The bargaining unit wouldn’t even fill a school bus.

Yet, here’s the AFT filing grievance after grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. This week, the NLRB notified Chavez that it’s moving two complaints forward, which means a middle school and its attorney will have to go up against the nation’s second-largest education union before an NLRB judge.

The AFT's first complaint to the NLRB seeks to block Chavez from making routine updates to its employee handbook. These changes were underway before the union came in last June and they read like what you’d commonly find in any workplace guide today. The updates the AFT is making a federal case over include expanded employee protections against harassment, accommodations for nursing mothers and disabled staff, workplace safety rules, and even permission for teachers to wear jeans on the job. The AFT complains that was an improper change to the dress code that should have been bargained.

The AFT's second complaint is about small adjustments in teachers' responsibilities to cover for positions that Chavez couldn't fill because enrollment dipped. They could have laid off staff in lower-priority positions. Instead, the school chose to protect jobs and shift teachers’ schedules mid-year in a way that didn’t cut down on their lunch periods or standard planning time, and that kept familiar faces in front of students. That, too, generated an NLRB complaint from the AFT.

The AFT’s rallying cry at Chavez has been, "What would Cesar do?" Considering Chavez himself fought for toilets and clean drinking water for farm workers, I suspect he'd find little to quibble with at a school where teachers already get 10 personal days off in addition to school breaks and where their average salary is nearly $65,000 ($6,000 higher than the national average and well more than the $46,000 that West Virginia school teachers were striking over). At Chavez, health insurance costs as little as $10 per paycheck. 

If I were a dues-paying union member, or in a new union waiting on a contract, I’d wonder why AFT is putting resources toward petty complaints that take a long time to litigate and are often moot by the time they’re resolved. (The school year ends in three months, and we’re still fighting over a handbook from last year?) Why not focus on making progress at the bargaining table? In a new union like at Chavez Prep, I might also be wondering how much quicker I could resolve such issues with my administration if I were able to talk to them directly instead of having to route every issue through a union rep.

Clearly the AFT is trying to get a toehold in DC’s large charter sector, starting with one school but eyeing a larger network and then who knows. As the union wears down charters with complaints like these and other timeworn tactics, they know they’ll win regardless. Either AFT will grow its membership, or they’ll shut down a charter that has been attracting families away from unionized district schools.

Chavez Schools has said all along they don’t oppose unionization but, differing with the union, they identify the disenfranchised in this dynamic as the students. At Chavez Prep, 75 percent of students are Hispanic, 60 percent are economically disadvantaged, and 37 percent are learning English. They’re the ones Cesar would be fighting for.