Unionizing KIPP: a tale of two schools or is it four?
Some recent history
It all started in January of 2009 when 16 of the 20 teachers at KIPP AMP Charter School (AMP means Always Mentally Prepared) in Crown Heights Brooklyn, New York, informed their co-principals that they were organizing themselves into a union and seeking official recognition for their efforts from the Public Employees Relation Board in New York. The teachers signed a ‘card’ in favor of a union at the school. Such a “card check” majority is all that’s required under New York State law for public employees to unionize; some Democrats in Congress support passage of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make card-check, as opposed to the current system of secret-ballot elections, the law of the land for unionizing workplaces. In the interim, each state has their own legislation regarding bargaining unit formation and in New York only a majority of teachers are needed to sign union authorization cards in order to be identified as a bargaining unit.
In a letter delivered to co-principals, Jeff Li and Melissa Perry, of the Brooklyn KIPP charter, the teachers said that they had decided to unionize in order to secure ‘teacher voices’ and respect for the work of teachers in their school. In their notice to KIPP administrators, they said they desired:
“to ensure that the [KIPP] motto of ‘team and family’ is realized in the form of mutual respect and validation for the work that is done [by teachers] each day” (Casey 2009).
KIPP AMP teachers also said they believe that the high staff turnover at the school had harmed their efforts to build a positive and consistent school culture for their students. According to Luisa Bonifacio, a teacher at the school:
“There is a need to make the teacher position more sustainable so that teachers don’t burn out, but are able to make a long-term commitment to the students and the school” (ibid).
KIPP AMP teacher Leila Chakravarty made a powerful argument that organizing a union is necessary for the well-being of the school, teachers and students. The organizing effort, she said, was to:
“build a sustainable community in our school” and address the problem of teacher turnover. Because as KIPP teachers we are so invested in our kids and form such close bonds with them, because we are always available to our students by telephone and email and spend ten hours every day with them, it is so vital and important that they feel they can count on us, and we will continue to be there. When they become close to a teacher who is gone in three months because she has burnt out, it undermines the trust we are working so hard to build” (ibid).
Another teacher noted, in an article in the New York City Journal that:
“It’s a matter of sustainability for teachers. There’s a heavy workload, and people have to balance their lives with their work” (Winters 2008).
The teachers went on to add that they justified their decision to unionize because:
“Teachers and professionals must have a voice in the creation and implementation of school policy. We must have our concerns as professionals recognized and addressed. We must be evaluated in a clear and transparent manner and given support when we need it. We must feel secure in our employment so that concerns as well as ideas can be voiced in a trusting environment” (ibid).
Initially, KIPP’s administration seemed to be caught off guard when teachers wrote to the principals at the school and to the nonprofit network to inform them of their decision to organize. Ky Adderley, KIPP AMP’s founding principal, met with seven of the teachers and told them that he was disappointed, according to several teachers who were there. Ms. Chakravarty stated:
“He said he had founded the school as a nonunion school and he had done so for a reason and that he was not pleased. Forming a union, the teachers recalled Mr. Adderley saying, would mean staffing decisions would be out of his control, suggesting that state officials who approved the charter would be able to fire people at any time” (ibid).
However, a delighted American Federation of Teachers (AFT), president Randi Weingarten, concurred with the teacher’s decision to join a union, commenting:
“We know that teacher turnover is a major concern across the charter school movement. The unionization of KIPP’s New York City schools provides a unique opportunity to create a model of sustainable teacher recruitment, development and retention” (Casey 2009).
But since then Weingarten has shown her support for the Race to the Top; she is not so interested in charter school organizing anymore, preferring instead the Eli Broad-Gate’s and Walmart models of education.
From a cursory glance at the teachers’ comments it seems that the unsustainable ‘KIPP’ educational model that Steve Wilson, the founder of Advantage Schools, warned about years earlier in his book Learning on the Job, was now beginning to fray. Saddled with long hours (often ten hour days), little control over the day to day operations or decisions made at the school, a lack of a collective voice as professionals and high a high turnover of teachers due to “burnout”, the 20 teachers at the Brooklyn KIPP were prompted by their daily working lives to sign authorization cards with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) seeking certification. The support for the union organizing effort by KIPP teachers was shown by the super majority of teachers who signed the authorization cards, 16 out of 20, a number well beyond the majority threshold necessary to certify the union. And they did not sign in isolation; they had the support of the majority of parents and families at the school.
What the KIPP teachers were demanding was not a traditional public school collective bargaining agreement, but one that is more in line with what how EMO, Green Dot’s collective bargaining agreements are designed, another non-profit EMO that has unionized employees. This is a basic contract that is tenureless (competency is based on performance reviews). However, under the tenureless contract sought by the teachers, administrators would have to prove “just cause” before firing a teacher as opposed to hiring them “at will” and firing them ‘at will’, which had been the case. They are also demanding that the contract include discipline measures for teachers that would follow a graduate scale and would include procedures and offer methods and strategies to help teachers that might be struggling in the profession.
But the KIPP teachers did not stop there. The union also announced in January of 2009 that teachers at a second KIPP charter school, KIPP Infinity, also wanted to enter into collective bargaining talks with KIPP. KIPP Infinity’s teachers were already represented by the union in an agreement that guaranteed them health insurance and other benefits, but they now wanted to negotiate a job contract, i.e. a tenureless, collective bargaining agreement with ‘just cause’ firing provisions just like the Brooklyn KIPP.
The two organizing movements by the KIPP teachers represent an enormous victory for the UFT, which has been campaigning to bring charter school teachers into its union for at least the last year. If other charter school teachers in New York City follow suit, the unionization effort would also mark a significant turning point for the charter school venture capitalists, whose leaders — the EMOs and independent providers that have scorned unions in their efforts to seize control of schools and implement their own new rules and regulations — would be forced to accept. And the unionization of the teachers also means that since the original KIPP Academy Charter School is a conversion charter school with UFT representation, educators at three of the four KIPP schools in New York City will also now be members of the UFT. This is a staggering blow for supporters of charter schools for it means they must engage in power sharing, acceppt transparency, full disclosure, participatory democracy and negotiate salaries and benefits with teachers.
Under New York state law, if the majority of a charter school’s teachers sign a petition supporting the union, as 16 of KIPP AMP’s 20 teachers did, management has 30 days to recognize the union or the matter goes to arbitration with the state. Upon hearing the news Weingarten immediately reached out to co-founder of KIPP, David Levin, informing him of the developments at the school and asking for his cooperation with an understanding that the teachers wished to work with the KIPP ‘family’ to assure a smooth union representation process and at the same time she informed him of the unions intention to enter into collective bargaining at the KIPP Infinity Charter School where the teachers are also members of the UFT. At the time, according to written reports, David Levin indicated he was open to working with the union. That was all to change very, very quickly.
KIPP management fights back
Why ‘Capital’ hates ‘unexploited labor’
Perhaps it was with at the urging of his conservative colleagues, other charter schools and their providers who feared unionization, or the maybe it was the various philanthropists who finance KIPP who whispered in Levin’s ear, but whichever the case, within one month of the announcement by the teachers, the UFT was forced to send two complaints to the state board arguing that KIPP not only was not cooperating or working to recognize the new union, but was actually stifling and blocking the teachers’ ability to organize.
It seemed David Levin and KIPP would not give up the power struggle just yet, at least not without a fight. Randi Weingarten, current president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represents teachers at more than 70 charter schools nationwide; she suspects there was pressure on Levin from financial backers, venture capitlists and Wall Street hucksters, which now underlies the tension between the two sides. KIPP presently has 66 charter schools in 19 states, with plans for more. The last thing they wish is a union precedent for their other schools. At the same time she also expressed disappointment with KIPP and David Levin in the New York Times, noting that in her conversation with David Levin:
“We had talked in the abstract about doing great things together, about creating a laboratory for reform with teacher support. So I am deeply disappointed by these actions” (Medina 2009).
The announcement that KIPP teachers were unionizing was to have other side effects as well. According to the Times article, teachers spoke of an environment at KIPP that had grown increasingly cold with suspicion, intimidation and fear since the announcement of the union drive. Levin’s initial offer to work with the union appeared to have deliquesced into anger and hostility. Covering the story for the New York Times at the time the initial controversy reared its head, was reporter Jennifer Medina, who wrote:
“….several teachers said in interviews, the atmosphere at the school has grown increasingly tense, with administrators making veiled threats about the effect of creating a union. E-mail and text messages that would usually be returned at all hours have gone unanswered. And late last month, teachers said they were told by their students, school administrators pulled students into a private meeting and asked them to critique their teachers” (ibid).
The teachers claimed the problem was even worse than reported to the public at the time. Complaints filed by the UFT with the Public Employees Relation Board accused human resource officials at the KIPP schools of spooking teachers, and menacing students and their parents in what can only be seen as a veiled threat, that with unionization KIPP might lose its affiliation with the whole KIPP network.
The complaint filed with the board also alleges that the Brooklyn KIPP’s AMA school’s, founding principal, Ky Adderley, harassed teachers after the notification of the union organizing by publicly sitting in the hallway of the school everyday to monitor the teachers and they accused him of coming to a staff meeting to encourage teachers to give up their organizing drive. All and all the atmosphere painted in the complaints is one of a bone chilling environment ratcheted up with threats and harassment to discourage teachers from organizing a union.
In the New York Times article, two members of the KIPP AMA union organizing committee even describe a verbal exchange they had with principal Adderley in which Adderley, evidently in an attempt at raw humor with sinister and threatening edge, asked them:
“Have you ever gone sky diving? No? Its (sic) fun to watch the people’s faces after they jump, they think they’re flying but their (sic) really just falling” (ibid).
But that is not all. Teachers go on to allege that:
“Then during the last week in January, while teachers were at a faculty meeting, the principals met with seventh- and eighth-grade students alone, a move the teachers said was unprecedented. Several students told their teachers that they had been encouraged to talk about “negative feelings and interactions” with them, those teachers said.
Mr. Adderley distributed notes on the meeting with the subject line “7th and 8th Grade feedback on Testing Environment.” The comments included “Teachers are very disrespectful. They always tell us sarcasm and mean words and expect us to have respect for them,” and “We need more reason to come to school, the classes are boring and there’s nothing to do. I miss how it used to be,” according to the memo (ibid).
If all of this is true, it is a direct violation of the New York Taylor Act which prohibits employers from such actions, but the ruling elite are not accustomed to ‘laws’ but rather rule by men. KIPP management and their leaders have traditionally touted their freedom from teachers unions as a strength owed to the fact it allows them to hire and fire teachers as they please. Whether the KIPP AMP teachers will force the KIPP ‘family’ to step away from that position is up to the state labor relations board, which has to decide whether to grant their request to be represented by the UFT. .
At face value one can conclude that this hardly represents the agreement to work with the union that co-founder of KIPP, David Levin promised Randi Weingarten when the organizing effort began. Apparently, KIPP had decided to counter the organizing drive by its teachers by arguing that the union would hurt the teachers themselves.
According to a complaint filed with the state relations board, by the KIPP teachers, in a meeting with teachers Levin was accused of threatening that if they organized they would “lose their staff’s pensions, maternity leave, retirement etc…. ..all that goes away. All that is potentially in jeopardy” (Green 2009).
Leila Chakravarty, a seventh-grade math teacher who helped collect signatures to form the KIPP teachers union noted:
“The general tenor has been of increased distance, and administrators felt more inaccessible than they have ever been” (Medina 2009).
This is no surprise to anyone familiar with union organizing drives. In New York, 18 of the state’s 115 charter schools are unionized, including two in Brooklyn operated by the teachers’ union. There is no doubt that what is happening with the unionization effort at KIPP AMP is being closely watched nationally, especially by conservative market reformers who loathe unions and are now beginning to see their educational dreams targeted for organizing efforts by teachers. As Medina underscores in her article in the Times:
“In the beginning, teachers’ unions initially ignored charter schools or viewed them as the enemy, but as the charters grew in size and influence, the unions’ feelings warmed somewhat. Green Dot, a Los Angeles-based charter network, has unions at each of its schools, including one that opened with the teachers’ union’s cooperation last fall in the Bronx” (ibid).
How was all this being met by the conservative watchdogs, apologists and pundits for the privatized charter movement? Not well. Matthew Ladner’s comments were typical of the conservative backlash against KIPP’s teacher organizing efforts. Commenting on the Jay P. Greene blog, home of the long time conservative ideologue and proponent of complete school privatization, Ladner now with the Manhattan Institute and formerly with the Goldwater Institute, commented:
“The whole idea of running a KIPP academy along with a thousand page union contract is absurd. Half-days on Saturday? Not on your life. On call to help with homework? Are you kidding? KIPP has earned many donors, but can they afford a rubber room? Need to change a light bulb in your classroom? Page 844, paragraph 5 clearly states that you must call a union electrician. You kids sit quietly with your heads down in the dark until he arrives. It will be any day now.
KIPP has a methodology and a hard earned brand to protect, and there are plenty of other kids in other states to help. If Congress is misguided enough to pass a national card check, it will be up to individual states to ban the practice. Those that do may find themselves rewarded by the opening of some very high quality schools” (Greene’s Blog 2009).
Marcus Winters, a writer for the City Journal out of New York City, noted that if the teachers at KIPP became unionized, KIPP and other charter schools would collectively negotiate their own labor agreements. But he went on to argue that once the union’s nose is under the tent, it would surely have the effect of pushing charter schools toward the public agreements with teacher unions. The current nine to ten hour workdays and a longer work year would not survive many contract renegotiations, according to Winters. More than that, he claimed, it’s equally unlikely that KIPP would retain its ability to fire ineffective teachers without having to go through what he called “an overly burdensome process”. And like his ideological counterparts who are fiercely against unions of any kind, he quickly added:
“If KIPP and other charter schools choose to unionize, they’ll very probably come to resemble the failing urban public schools to which they currently provide such a hopeful alternative” (Winters 2008).
However Winters did not stop there, fawning his way to express his fondness for KIPP:
“KIPP owes much of its success to the high standards it sets for both students and teachers. KIPP schools look past their students’ backgrounds and simply demand that they do the work necessary for college admission. Teaching in a KIPP school entails a rigorous commitment, as the organization’s website describes:
“Teachers typically work a nine-hour work day during the week, half days on selected Saturdays, and three weeks in the summer. They also are available via cell phone for homework help in the evening.” Compare that to the norm in public schools. For example, the New York City teachers’ union contract stipulates: “The school day for teachers serving in the schools shall be six hours and 20 minutes.”
Like other such contracts across the country, it sets out the exact number of days per year that a teacher can be required to work and exactly which duties he or she can be asked to perform. Giving out cell-phone numbers to students is not among them.
Teachers are well aware of the extra time and effort KIPP requires. Most KIPP students enter the classroom performing at low proficiency; their parents often lack the ability to help them with schoolwork. Teachers get compensated for these extra educational burdens, and usually make 15 to 20 percent more in salary than teachers in the surrounding school district. But the tougher demands in KIPP schools have reportedly led to high turnover rates. Some teachers burn out and leave; others that can’t cut it are let go” (ibid).
The ruling class loves exploited labor but hates organized labor.
The intimidation efforts by KIPP management and the noticeable outcry from the conservative ideologues, conservative writers, privatization forces and philanthropic community just might have worked because in March 2009, just weeks after the notification to KIPP of the teachers’ desire to unionize, teachers at two other New York City KIPP charter schools requested, in petitions signed by every single teacher at the schools, that the state labor officials sever their ties from the city teachers union — in other words, that the union be decertified.
The move is considered a powerful response to the organizing efforts by teachers at Brooklyn, KIPP AMP and puts out a formidable message to other charter schools and their teachers who wish to organize as a result of the effort of KIPP teachers. In response, the KIPP Infinity teachers, one of the two schools authorizing unions, fought back, issuing the following statement in a press release:
” From the Teachers of KIPP Academy and KIPP: Infinity
On Wednesday, March 18, 2009, the teaching staffs of KIPP Academy Charter School in the Bronx, New York, and KIPP Infinity Charter School in Manhattan, submitted to the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) official petitions for decertification of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) as our certified negotiating representative. These petitions were signed and supported by every staff member at each school.
“It is with great consideration that we take this next step in the life of our schools. We, the undersigned teaching staffs of KIPP Academy and KIPP: Infinity, feel the success we have attained to this point in our schools is largely because of the close relationship between all those interested in our students’ well-being, from students to families to school staff. While we have nominally been unionized, the collective bargaining agreement has never been a prominent factor in deciding what is best for our students, our team, and our family. Rather, we solve problems using communication among staff members and working collaboratively with administration to best serve the needs of our students and families. We have found that this method of problem solving has fit our situations well, and we plan to continue following this model of open, positive communication among students, families, and staff in the future” (KIPP, 2009).
Since 2009, the UFT has made clear its desire to play a more active part in the day-to-day operations of our schools. Two examples illustrate this point.
In January 2009, the KIPP teachers sent a letter to the UFT:
“Infinity Board of Directors with the goal of beginning collective bargaining on teachers’ behalf; the UFT neither consulted nor informed the staff of this request. In addition, a union-initiated grievance has been filed against KIPP Academy without solicitation or support of staff. It is our belief that the active presence of an external negotiating representative could compromise the strong environment of communication and collaboration that is integral to the success of our schools.
We recognize and respect the historical value of labor unions to protect the rights of workers and ensure quality working conditions, and our decision to decertify the union as our negotiating representative is not a reflection of our feelings either toward unions as a whole, or toward the UFT in particular. We also certainly understand the vital role labor unions have played, and continue to play, in supporting the interests of workers and facilitating communication between labor and management.
With that said, we do not believe that one size fits all. We firmly believe that the best way to move forward is to continue with what has made our schools great: parents, staff, and administration working cooperatively to teach character and academics in order to prepare our students for high school, college, and the world beyond. We look forward to continuing to serve the students and families of New York City to the very best of our ability.
KIPP Academy Staff KIPP Infinity Staff”
What Advantage School’s Steve Wilson had so presciently seen, the non-sustainability of an educational model built on 60 hour work weeks for teacher-philanthropers and a starry-eyed, drill baby drill dedication to students and their parents that “tethered them to the carpet loom of testing” and the conveyor belt of despair, was just that: simply unsustainable. Would this now mean that the KIPP design or as many would like to call it, the KIPP ‘brand name’, would now lose some of its shine and luster? Not if those who opposed teacher’s unions had anything to say about it. they have millions to spend on anti-union specialists that use fear and intimidation to stop any form of right to free assembly under the Constitution.
Teacher support for unions
The KIPP schools and their administrators and financial backers in New Orleans, with their “managed curriculums” and their “best practices” were no doubt looking at the union effort in New York with some consternation and hand wringing. So were other charter school providers and EMOs, as was Washington D.C. where, as we mentioned, three out of every ten schools are charters and Chancellor Rhee has already stated she wants a corporate model for the school system.
The last thing New Orleans big bosses, Paul Vallas and Paul Pastorek, the phony philanthropists and the profit-driven business community want in New Orleans is the reemergence of teachers unions. But is teacher union organizing in New Orleans inevitable? With the long hours and dedicated commitment on the part of KIPP staff, teachers say they want a formal way to influence how schools are managed, how curricular concerns are dealt with, and how professional development is maintained. They are not alone.
In an Education Sector Report, put out in May 2008 by The Joyce Foundation, entitled Waiting to be won over: Teachers Speak on the Profession, Unions, and Reform, Ann Duffett, Steve Farkas, Andrew J. Rotherham, and Elena Silva, authors of the report, surveyed 1,010 K-12 teachers about their views on the teaching profession, teachers unions, and a host of reforms aimed at improving teacher quality. The report found, among other things:
“The survey revealed that it is hard to place teachers definitively in any one camp even though advocates on all sides of various issues do just that. As a whole, teachers today are what political analysts might describe as “in play” and waiting to be won over by one side or another. Despite frustrations with schools, school districts, their unions, and a number of aspects of the job in general, teachers are not sold on any one reform agenda. They want change but are a skeptical audience. For instance, nearly half of teachers surveyed say that they personally know a teacher who is ineffective and should not be in the classroom. But, although teachers want something done about low-performing colleagues, they are leery of proposals to substantially change how teachers can be dismissed” (Duffett et. al. 2008).
The report also found that:
“Teachers see problems with their unions as well. For example, many say that the union sometimes fights to protect teachers who really should be out of the classroom. But teachers still see the union as essential, and they value the union’s traditional role in safeguarding their jobs. New teachers are more likely today than they were in 2003 to call unions “absolutely essential.” And many teachers would like to see their unions explore some new activities, especially some of the ideas associated with the “new unionism” agenda, and take the greater role in reform, but not if that comes at the expense of the union’s core mission” (ibid).
This should be enough for pro-privatization charter supporters and their political and government allies to quake in their boots. They had hoped that decades of fighting the teacher unions would eradicate their effectiveness, but the report noted the contrary was true. An environment of distrust between administration and staff was the norm not an aberration, as the majority of the teachers reported in the survey. They stated they did not trust the administrators of the schools they worked at nor did they think they had the best interests of teachers in mind. They cited weak evaluations, few rewards and lots of rules when they were surveyed. The report also went on to note:
“Educators and policymakers frequently discuss ways to attract and retain high-quality teachers. One idea getting attention these days is to swap some of the benefits teachers enjoy later in their careers for more money in the early years. The survey finds teachers are protective of their pensions and the vast majority of teachers overall do not like the idea of raising starting salaries in exchange for fewer retirement benefits. But many teachers are open to other new ways of attracting and keeping good teachers. Generally speaking, teachers appear to be considerably more interested in recruitment and retention strategies that would improve the flexibility and conditions of their work. For example, most support making it easier to leave and return to the profession without losing benefits. A suburban teacher from California wrote, “As a mom of two kids under five, I’d like to see it more feasible to take a few years off and be able to go back without retirement being so negatively affected.” And an overwhelming majority supports giving teachers more time for class planning and preparation. While this measure would come with a large price tag for public schools, it is notable that the measure teachers are most likely to favor does not come with any monetary gain for individual teachers” (ibid).
Right, the measure teacher’s most likely support may not necessarily favor monetary gain but what the study does show is that teachers are a long way from chucking their support for collective bargaining units. They understand that their professionalism and voice is necessary for the overall success of any classroom and the students and teachers who labor in them. Take the case of Chicago and the for-profit EMO, Civitas Schools.
Chicago: The case of Civitas Schools and union organizing
KIPP teacher union organizing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the new union mobilization among teachers at charter schools throughout the nation. In Chicago, an overwhelming majority of teachers at three charter schools, joined by parents and community leaders, filed authorization cards April 3, 2009 with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board to be recognized as a bargaining unit. The teachers seek immediate recognition of their collective bargaining unit and for a commitment by school administrators to bargain in good faith and settle a contract with the newly recognized union immediately.
The teachers in question work at three of the Civitas Schools’ which are part of the Chicago International Charter Schools (CICS) under a charter held by the Chicago Charter School Foundation. Civitas Schools is a for-profit EMO and fully owned subsidiary of the charter holder, the Chicago Charter School Foundation. More than 1,500 students attend the three CICS campuses. If recognized as a union, teachers at the for-profit operated contract, charter schools would be the first unionized charter school teachers in the Chicago area. Three quarters of the total teaching staff at all three schools signed union authorization cards to be the first unit represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). Since Illinois, like New York and other states, allows union authorization by majority ‘card check’, this exceeds the simple majority required by law. Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS/Civitas Northtown Academy and a member of Chicago ACTS, remarked when speaking about the organizing effort:
“We continue to believe that these charter schools are public schools because they are funded with taxpayer dollars. We are prepared to proceed with an election as soon as possible and are confident that our union will prevail” (Civitas 2009).
Civitas didn’t see it that way, arguing that its charter schools were essentially private schools not accountable to the public, despite the fact they receive taxpayer dollars. In a brief Civitas submitted to the NLRB arguing against recognition of the teachers’ bargaining unit, it claimed that as an entity it was a for-profit company and therefore not required to provide any type of annual presentation to any government body or to justify its annual expenditures, and that it had no “direct personal accountability” to any government public officials.
Sure, this is legally correct; for non-profit is now the favorite ‘front’ for the Board of Directors. they can contract out through the back door and claim non-profit status and this means contracting out teachers, or so they said. The real issue, the duties and responsibilities of a corporation and its directors to its shareholders and the role of ‘constituencies’ (students’ parents an teachers) in this process; this was precisely was the argument that Civitas was making. Civitas wanted it both ways. They wanted non-profit status and for-profit hierarchy and autocracy with fiduciary responsibibilities to investors, not students and teachers.
The filing on behalf of the teachers at the three Civitas schools is a result of a two-year campaign by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), headed by Randi Weingarten (ibid). According to Emily Mueller, a high school language arts teacher at CICS/Civitas Northtown Academy Charter School, the issue facing the Chicago charter teachers are the same as those faced in New York and in New Orleans and elsewhere:
“We organized because a teacher’s voice in a school’s decision-making process will help create the best work environment for teachers and the best learning environment for students. We love our work, and a union gives us security of being able to voice concerns and ideas without placing our jobs at risk” (People’s Weekly World Website, 2009).
On June 3rd, 2009, despite the brief by Civitas, which was rejected in principle, the teachers won their right to be recognized as a bargaining unit. The Board’s decision made it clear that Civitas was correct it was a private for-profit EMO and thus governed by the National Labor Relations Board and federal laws.
In a brief letter to the parents of students at the school, CEO, Simon Hess issued the following statement on the Civitas website after the ruling:
“June 3, 2009
Greetings Civitas Teachers and Staff,
I have some very important news to share with you.We were informed today that the National Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of Civitas and our teachers.
The Board’s decision makes clear that, as a private organization, Civitas is governed by the NLRB, and federal labor laws.
Accordingly, the NLRB affirmed our position that our teachers have a right to a secret ballot election, where teachers can make an informed, private decision about whether or not to have a union represent them.
We are gratified by the NLRB’s decision. We have been adamant about fighting for the rights of our teachers to vote in a secret ballot setting.
We’re very hopeful that this ruling will help us to promptly resolve this matter. As an organization, Civitas is committed to ensuring that our teachers have voice in the collaborative effort to provide an outstanding college preparatory education for our students.
This decision preserves your essential voice in shaping the future an vision of our Civitas campuses.
As always, many thanks to each of you for your hard work and dedication to our students.
Simon Hess CEO Civitas Schools” ( Civitas’ Website 2009).
Through its affiliation with the American Federation of Teachers, the CICS/Civitas unit of Chicago ACTS now joins the nationwide Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, a community of educators and staff at more than 70 charter schools nationwide in ten states. All are AFT-affiliated unions. The card check authorization signed by teachers in Chicago poses a direct threat to the market based, school ‘reform’ effort in that city euphemistically known as “Renaissance 2010”, the brainchild of Mayor Daley that seeks to open new schools under charter contract management while seeking to close current public schools in mostly African-American and Latino communities. Arne Duncan’s old training ground.
The organizing drive by the teachers at Civitas run charter schools is seen as another victory for the AFT and its affiliates and another challenge for the free market fundamentalists. We can only hope they continue and if this is to be true, then the American Federation of Teacher’s conference in Seattle beginning on July 7th must be the focus of our attention.
Will the KIPP organizing effort or the Civitas teachers’ unionization authorization reach cities like New Orleans or Washington, D.C. where the corporate model of education is being fostered through charterized, contract schools? The answer is that it is probably too soon to tell; however, judging from the success of the union drive in New York and Chicago and with the growing focus on charter schools by the AFT and its affiliates, unions may well pose a threat to the Diverse Performance Strategies model Paul Hill and his conservative allies have put into play and which they rename, it appears, monthly or yearly to market the idea. Now called the ‘portfolio model’, it is being harnessed to capital’s interest in gobbling up education in various states. Whether unions become strong will depend on the rank and file and if they will continue to support Randi Weingarten or if they will finally reject with vehemous the whole Race to the Top policy that Duncan and Weingarten support.
Anti-teacher union sentiment
The experience of teachers in New Orleans, Washington D.C. and New York are similar in nature and they are compelling in our understanding of teachers and their relationship to the charter school movement and the teacher unions. This is true, for the experiment being conducted in New Orleans and Renaissance 2010 in Washington D.C. under Chancellor Rhee, exemplifies the ideology of conservative reformers in blaming teachers for the less than robust performance of public schools. As Paul Tough noted in his article regarding the performance of New Orleans schools, New Orleans was a failed public educational system long before the hurricane hit the city. No one could rationally argue that the school system was serving the needs of students or their teachers let alone the community. The system had been historically poor and was so bad that:
“In New Orleans, before the storm, the schools weren’t succeeding even in an incremental way. In 2005, Louisiana’s public schools ranked anywhere from 43rd to 46th in the federal government’s various state-by-state rankings of student achievement, and the schools in Orleans Parish, which encompasses the city of New Orleans, ranked 67th out of the 68 parishes in the state. The school system was monochromatically black — white students made up just 3 percent of the public-school population, most of them attending one of a handful of selective-enrollment magnet schools — and overwhelmingly poor as well; more than 75 percent of students had family incomes low enough to make them eligible for a subsidized lunch from the federal government. The dysfunction in the city’s school system extended well beyond the classroom: a revolving door for superintendents, whose average tenure lasted no more than a year; school officials indicted for bribery and theft; unexplained budget deficits; decaying buildings; almost three-quarters of the city’s schools slapped with an “academically unacceptable” rating from the state” (Tough 2008 ).
Yet the situation in New Orleans, as bad as it was, could be seen as a confluence of economic and social events. Poverty, drug ridden neighborhoods, class division and exploitation, broken families and the lack of attention to infrastructure and the health care needs of children and their parents all played a part in understanding the dysfunctional city school system. In fact, attempting to analyze ‘schools’ seperate from the system taht spawns them, capitalism is one of the problems that today plagues social science. No institution in America can be understood outside the barricades of capital accumulation and disaster policies.
Conservative ideologues disagree with this assessment, however, and continue to argue, as they historically have done, that the problem that plagues public schools is to be blamed on teacher’s unions, not sociological handwringing — not the material conditions of depair that they help create, feed off and propagandize. The neo-libertarians hate all that is public be they congregations of unions or governments.
As Steve Wilson noted in his book, Learning on the Job:
“Organized interests have successfully resisted calls for radical change in the organization and delivery of public education, none more than the two national teachers’ unions, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Today the majority of K-12 public school teachers belong to a local union, nearly all of which are NEA and AFT affiliates. Together, the two unions count 3.5 million public school teachers, support staff, pre-school teachers, and college faculty among their members” (Wilson 2006).
Speaking about teacher contracts that arise out of collective bargaining, Wilson is unhesitantly blunt:
“The result is that the most prescriptive teacher contracts, which may run three hundred pages or more, dictate virtually every detail of what may and may not happen ion schools. And the teachers contract is only one rule book governing the school. Where teachers are unionized, often every other employee group is unionized as well, including lunch room aides, the custodians, and the teaching assistants. Each arrives with a hefty union contract of its own” (ibid).
Sounds like the same rule book the privatizers bring to the game and the same old message Americans have hosted from the inception of industrialization, just with different rules.
Just what is the resistance teacher unions pose to market based reform proposals and why is there such a public effort to vilify teachers, collective bargaining and their unions? The answer is clear: the cost of union wages, health care benefits, protection from discrimination in hiring and firing, paid vacation, job security and the role they play in fighting for equity in decision-making; curriculum development and the day to day operations of the schools, all of this poses a threat to the new charter school reformers and in fact, many would argue, any educational reform effort. Those ideologues, like Wilson and Hill, who advocate for a radically new system of education based on market principles and privatization, have long been active in opposing unions precisely because of the costs involved in labor contracts; but even more importantly, they oppose the control unions force them to cede to democratic decision making processes; they do not like the necessity of public disclosure and transparency. Paul Vallas, New Orleans, Superintendent of Instruction made this very clear when he boasted of his virtual unbridled independence in making decisions for the new school system and the fact he was beholden to no one.
Diane Ravitch, an outspoken educational theorist disagrees with these free market reformers, at least on this issue, and instead argues that teachers unions are both good for the public and the teachers who join them. Writing for an AFT publication in 2007 titled Why Teacher Unions Are Good for Teachers and the Public, Ravitch reminds us:
“It is worth recalling why teachers joined unions and why unions remain important today. Take tenure, for example. The teacher unions didn’t invent tenure, despite widespread beliefs to the contrary. Tenure evolved in the 19th century as one of the few perks available to people who were paid low wages, had classes of 70 or 80 or more, and endured terrible working conditions. In late 19th century New York City, for example, there were no teacher unions, but there was already ironclad, de facto teacher tenure. Local school boards controlled the hiring of teachers, and the only way to get a job was to know someone on the local school board, preferably a relative. Once a teacher was hired, she had lifetime tenure in that school, but only in that school. In fact, she could teach in the same school until she retired—without a pension or health benefits—or died.
One problem with this kind of tenure was that it was not portable. If a teacher changed schools, even in the same district, she would lose her tenure in the school where she was first hired, and she would have to go to the end of the line at her new school.
Pay for teaching was meager, but it was one of the few professional jobs open to women, and most teachers were women. Pay scales were blatantly discriminatory. Teachers in the high schools were paid more than those in the elementary schools. Male teachers (regardless of where they taught, though almost all were in high schools) were paid more than female teachers, on the assumption that they had a family to support and women did not” (Ravitch 2006-2007).
Unlike Ravitch and others who support teacher unions, conservatives and business interests like Wilson and Hill have historically bemoaned the fact that NEA and AFT represent millions of struggling teachers throughout the nation; yet interestingly they seem to have no problem when it comes to putting together their own ‘organized interests’, ‘unions’ or special interest organizations to promote their own private agendas.
Whether it is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Manufacturers or the AMA; from the Business Roundtable to Paul Hill’s own think tank on education and school choice, conservative anti-union ‘reformers’ have been busy promoting and organizing their own think tanks, unions and organizations for more than three decades, if not longer. Public school principles have their own unions as do many vice-principals. No one ever mentions them when they speak about ‘educational unions’, do they?
And what about the list of industry and trade associations who meet on a regular basis, have anti-union agendas and on the ground and engage in collective bargainng activities to defeat unions? One can think of the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber ofCommerce, The National Right to Work organization, the Associated Builders and Contractors, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, the Alpine Group, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace (a front group for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), the National Restaurant Association, the National Retail Federation Association, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, the Council of Shopping Centers and the list could go on and on.
All of these ‘trade organizations or associations’, as they are called, contrary to their worker friendly names, are vociferously aligned against unions and carry deep pockets full of huge financial funds to use to fight unionization, pass favorable legislation for their causes and look to repeal favorable union legislation that gets in their way. This is how they use the government to aid and abet their corproate plans.
But when working people, in this case teachers, want to organize to advance their interests, that is organize around their social and self interests, this is alarmingly looked at as partisan or destructive to students and parents; the teachers get labeled “special interests” while the so-called industry leaders, corporate captains and CEOs are painted as benevolent reformers held hostage to irrational demands by teachers who actually work in the trenches with students each and every day. The message: capital loves its own unions and hates organized working people they cannot exploit.
Paradoxically, or perhaps more a tragic irony, Wal Mart, which through the Walton Foundation funds many of the contract charter schools (and their courtesans) in dozens of states, at the same time gives huge sums of money to fight unionization both on the national and state level. And this is true with many if not most of the so-called philanthropies. From Gates to Walmart, from The Gap to Broad, they have all been at one time or another forced to submit to government regulations on paying overtime to their workers, overtime they stole from people’s labor. A cursory look at the Labor Department statistics will show the amount these behomoth ‘unions of capital’ called corporations have paid in enormous fines due to criminal theft of wages (see my article on Walmart, The Gap and stolen labor at www.dailycensored.com)
Take the National Right to Work organization, a ‘union’ of business interests working assiduously against other working people’s unions throughout the nation. In October of 2007 they gleefully reported on the end of the “union monopoly bargaining” system, or what teachers call ‘collective bargaining’, in New Orleans. They chided in their October 2007, fact newsletter the fact that:
“More than 30 states currently authorize and promote union monopoly bargaining over teachers and other public school employees. Though Louisiana law does not explicitly authorize monopoly bargaining, many school districts, especially in the state’s larger jurisdictions, have long acquiesced to it. This abusive system grants the bosses of one teacher union monopoly power to negotiate over the pay, benefits, and working conditions of all teachers — including teachers who don’t wish to join or have anything to do with a union” (National Right to Work 2007).
They even went further complimenting the new privatized regime change in New Orleans on their dexterity and “nimbleness”, as they put it, in scorching the old system and putting in place the infrastructure for a new, privatized, union hostile system:
“Although charter schools may legally be unionized, up to now teacher union officials have secured monopoly bargaining power in only a handful of the 3500 charter schools, enrolling over a million students, nationwide. Because charter entrepreneurs were far more nimble in reestablishing schools after Katrina, and because Louisiana public officials generally didn’t stand in the way, today 42 of New Orleans’ 81 public schools are charters” (ibid).
They rub their greasy hands with glee as they watch public schools close, public teachers fired and investment opportunities sail forward.
Finally they boast:
“Right to Work supporters have for decades argued that, in addition to violating teachers’ freedom as individuals, monopoly bargaining undermines schools’ ability to educate children. Right to Work supporters have also argued that eliminating monopoly bargaining paves the way for overall school reform” (ibid).
“Monopoly Dons’, ‘union bosses’, ‘special interest groups’, ‘organized interests’, ‘barriers to reform’, ‘tyrannical organizations’ ‘government workers’ and many more euphemisms that can be commandeered here have been leveled at teacher unions since their inception. Seeing behind the words and understanding the actual facts on the ground, is often difficult for a public that receives media generated sound bites and little or no news on educational events unfolding in the nation.
What the constant villification of people’s unions has created is an American mind that detests collective bargaining and unions. The union bashing we see today is reminiscent, as we will see, of that accomplished throuoghout the 1900’s. However this time, disaster capitalism is making capital more profitable and unions more difficult to organize.
One main player in the anti-teacher union movement is Rick Berman, head of what he calls The Center for Union Facts, who accuses teachers’ unions of hindering the quality of public education by protecting bad educators and opposing school reform. The Center, in what can only be called a publicity stunt, is currently soliciting nominations for the nation’s 10 worst unionized teachers, and Berman says he will give $10,000 to each of the 10 teachers if they only agree to stop teaching forever.
Berman says The Center for Union Facts is funded by businesses, foundations and members of the public, but he won’t identify them to the public. (Masterson 2008). The Center’s 2007 IRS tax return, the last currently available at this point, shows that it took in $2.5 million that year, almost entirely from unnamed donors including one donor who put up almost half — $1.2 million dollars.
Richard Berman is a food and restaurant lobbyist who started the Employee Freedom Action Committee. He runs at least ten interlocking corporate front groups in his fight against labor unions. Berman and his managers collected $840,000 for their services to anti-union campaigns; this although the Center howled about highly paid union officials and listed them by name and salary on it website (Silverstein 2009) But isn’t the Berman’s Center a union too?
The ruling class detests unions of any sort
David Kirkpatrick, commenting in a 2006 essay written for the conservative think tank, The Buckeye Institute, summed up the anti-union teacher sentiment this way:
” So teacher unions support charter school laws, right? Not quite! Both major teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers view the charter school movement as a direct challenge, perhaps the greatest from any source. Thus they have opposed laws authorizing the establishment of charter schools, weakening charter school laws as much as possible and limiting the number of such schools that are authorized.
Even after all of this has failed, they continue to try to sweep back the sea. In Ohio where charter schools are called community schools, the Ohio Federation of Teachers wants the authorizing legislation to be found unconstitutional. Why is this so?
Primarily because of one thing that wasn?t mentioned in the preceding positives about the charter school movement. That one thing is that charter school teachers, in overwhelming numbers, do not vote to affiliate with the teacher unions, nor do they tend to join the unions as individuals.
More than anything else the charter school movement is illustrating that teacher union rhetoric about teacher autonomy, professionalism, and conducive working conditions are just that - rhetoric.
The last thing the unions want - any unions, but especially teacher unions - is for the teachers to be able to function as independent professionals, like doctors, lawyers, etc. After all, if teachers can function independently, that will be true of their relationship to unions as well as traditional school boards. This presents the unions with an impossible, perhaps fatal, dilemma (Kirkpatrick 2006).
Attacks of this nature on unions of all stripes, is also certainly not new; they are part of the American experience and as stated, too often the American psyche. When companies like GM or Ford fail, the public is told it is the fault of the unionized, greedy workers. When school districts fail to function and underperform, then, they are told, it must be the fault of the unionized teachers who only care about themselves and their tenure and health care. Time and time again the managerial elite who run private and public organizations blame workers when things go wrong and this is not just in the realm of education, as readers know.
The media has assisted and abated the union bashing by focusing on corrupt unions and painting an over-generalized picture of union forces set to destroy the nation’s fabric of life and way of living when it was precisely the unions that fought for the wages and working conditions enjoyed by what has been called “the middle class” in the last century. Yet from Hollywood to the corporate media, the union ‘bosses’ are consistently focused on as the harbingers of all that is wrong with American companies and public organizations. Very rarely are the CEO’s of these companies, public or private, or the upper management who have mismanaged these enterprises for decades been demonized as workers have been. In fact, as we have seen in the Wall Street crisis, on the contrary, they have been handsomely rewarded with large bonuses for their crafty theft and attack on working people while our economy and way of life fade into the past-future.
The controversy over unions has been brought to the attention of the public once again in a recent report entitled, No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing, by Kate Bronfrenbrenner of the Economic Policy Institute. In the report she notes that:
“Overall, 12.4% of U.S. workers are represented by unions, a density far below what would be the case if all workers who wanted to belong to a union could freely do so. In fact, studies have shown that if workers’ preferences were realized, as much as 58% of the workforce would have union representation. Yet, this low overall unionization rate obscures a striking imbalance – while almost 37% of public-sector workers belong to unions, less than 8% of private-sector workers do” (Bronfrebrenner 2009)
Bronfrenbrenner goes on to indicate that it is the intensification of employer intimidation and opposition to union organizing that is responsible for the steady decline of unions throughout the US. We saw this in the KIPP organizing effort as well as in the Civitas organizing efforts. Why? Here she is salient:
“In the last two decades, private-sector employer opposition to workers seeking their legal right to union representation has intensified. Compared to the 1990s, employers are more than twice as likely to use 10 or more tactics in their antiunion campaigns, with a greater focus on more coercive and punitive tactics designed to intensely monitor and punish union activity. It has become standard practice for workers to be subjected by corporations to threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance, and retaliation for supporting a union. An analysis of the 1999-2003 data on NLRB election campaigns finds that: 63% • of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union; 54% • of employers threaten workers in such meetings; 57% • of employers threaten to close the worksite; 47% • of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits; and 34% • of employers fire workers” (ibid).
Intimidation can range from employer required ‘captive audience’ meetings, which is employer run and anti-union and where union supporters cannot speak. Firing of union activists during organizing drives along with routine intimidation like that we saw with KIPP or Civitas. According to the NLRB’s most recent annual report it took an average of eighteen months to resolve charges of unfair practices, certainly long enough to harass and intimidate employees (Silverstein 2009).
The Employee Free Choice Act
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) would allow for card-check authorization for union membership and collective bargaining when a majority of workers at an employment site sign authorization cards. This is the law that in New York and Washington allowed the teachers unions to unionize KIPP and Civitas. It is also the law in many other states and this represents a problem for many anti-union zealots. The Alliance for Worker’s Freedom, an anti- worker organization along with SOS BALLOT, another key industry group, seeks to amend state constitutions like New York’s, Chicago’s and Washington D.C.’s, which allows for simple majority card check by workers to form a union. SOS’ sole officer is Charles Hurth, a noted conservative, who supports corporate efforts at stopping or breaking unions.
Opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, or simple majority card check by employees, that is now before Congress can be compared with opposition to the Wagner Act during the 1930’s, especially in the public prognostications of industry leaders. The Wagner Act gave workers the right to collective bargaining in the 1930’s and if we look at the conservative politicians, business representatives and other organizations that fought the Act at the time we see almost analogous arguments and rhetorical sophistry. Take the following examples of arguments posed during the Roosevelt era in opposition to the Wagner Act:
“Specifically, the provisions of the bill will operate to provoke and encourage labor disputes, rather than diminish them . . . Its real effect will be to serve as a vehicle for the advancement of the selfish interests of minority labor organizations.” Walter Harnischfeger, National Association of Manufacturers, March 21, 1935
“To support labor in this objective by enacting this bill would permanently close the door to recovery.” Guy Harrington, National Publishers Association, March 29, 1935
“My general criticism of the . . . bill is not so much that it supports unionization as that it will in operation result in enforced unionization.” J.M. Larkin, Bethlehem Steel, April 5, 1935
Now juxtapose these comments made close to seventy five years ago with recent comments in opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and the resemblance is strikingly eerie.
“Unions want it because it would make it easier to recruit dues-paying members, not because it would somehow defend workers’ right to choose freely to unionize.” Heritage Foundation, April 23, 2007
“The act is a poison pill for our ailing economy, which is why every major business organization from every industry sector has come out in strong opposition to it.” Brian Worth, Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, February 25, 2009
“Labor unions are supposed to protect workers’ rights, yet union bosses want Congress to pass a law that actually robs workers of their democratic right . . . through a forced unionization process.” Senator Orrin Hatch, June 26, 2007 (LaborNerd 2009).
Attacks on teachers unions are part and parcel of the attack on unions throughout. What is new now, however, is that with the advent of charter, contract schools both in New Orleans and elsewhere, the controversies over teacher’s unions and charter schools are heating up throughout the nation. While the attacks on teachers continue unabated, teacher union advocates argue that the role of unions in collective bargaining in any school reform effort holds great promise, and should potentially be enhanced and certainly maintained. They put forth the claim that a contract in a local district can provide a framework for improvement, and that teachers along with management and parents, should collaborate and guide any meaningful reform change. This, they argue, should be a cooperative effort among all educational stakeholders, parents and students.
The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), or what is left of them, state the following when speaking of the charterized experiment conducted in their city schools. Asked if the union can improve the educational climate at a charter schools the union replied:
“We firmly believe that it can. As three charter school advocates acknowledged in their book Charter Schools in Action, it is “difficult to launch successful charter schools.” This is because it is a tremendous challenge to effectively fund, hire faculty and staff, develop curricula and programs, and carry out the other critical tasks that are involved in operating a good school.
Even more important is carrying out these tasks without losing focus on what matters most — the needs of students. The success of a charter school (or any school) depends on the ability of educators to come together, share their professional needs or concerns, and have a process for regularly communicating these needs on an open and ongoing basis with the administrators or management of charters, while devlopiong and implementing a reasoning curriculum with opportunities for students to critically think their way through learning.
Charter school teachers and many charter school leaders recognize that they can have both the freedom and reforms that charter schools foster, and the respect and fairness that teacher unions ensure. When educators have a voice, it translates into students who excel academically” (United Teachers of New Orleans Website)
Teacher union advocates of all stripes agree and therefore conclude in the majority that the role of unions and collective bargaining everywhere should be maintained and expanded, not vilified and decimated as opponents would like to see. They are beginning to come together to assure that they have the right to form unions and that these rights are not blocked by vilification and outright intimidation and harassment. For they see that the interests of ‘capital’ are not the interests or ‘labor’ nor those who receive the services of education — students. Capital’s interest is profit, labor’s interest is an impediment to this profit for labor understands the exploitative nature of capital’s thirst and thus bands workers together to assure that exploitation does not hide behind ‘best practices’ and testing regimes.
Will we get tough?
July 7th-12th the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) will have their conference and elections in Seattle, Washington. As an AFT member, I will be there and will be supporting Yvette Felarca who will challenge the awful presidency of Randi Weingarten. Weingarten, herself a Eli Broad supporter, must go for she is capitulating with the rancid Race to the Top.
If we are to stop the privatization of education and the move to private vouchers, which is what this whole charter chain thing is about, we will need real leadership and courage and Yvette Felarca from ‘By Any Means Necessary’ (www.bamn.com) will provide both leadership and courage.
I urge you to support Yvette by writing her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or you can contact BAMN (www.bamn.com). Please, Yvette will need support both financial and otherwise to mount this challenge.
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