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Bricolage Academy Educators Vote 'Union Yes'

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Aubri Juhasz
Bricolage Academy teachers Leigh Topp (left) and Brittany Scofield stand outside the school following a vote in favor of unionization. May 28, 2021.

Bricolage Academy became the latest New Orleans charter school to unionize as part of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), following an official vote Friday morning. Sixty teachers cast ballots and 70 percent were in favor of forming a union.

The vote included the school’s full-time and part-time professional employees, including teachers, associate teachers, counselors and interventionists. That’s according to the National Labor Relations Board, which oversaw the election.

Non-professional employees, such as para-professionals, managers, supervisors and guards, were not eligible to vote. UTNO President Wanda Richard said eight employees cast votes that were ultimately determined to be ineligible. Reporters were not permitted to watch the vote count.

Richard said educators at Bricolage have worked hard for the last two years to build union support. The group, known as Bricolage Academy Educators United, ran an active social media campaign that helped build community support.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, Bricolage parents and teachers at other schools expressed solidarity with the movement, and other social justice-oriented groups like Southern Solidarity helped advance the school’s cause.

Bricolage Academy music teacher Brittany Scofield said it’s the union’s intention to eventually obtain collective bargaining rights for all of the school’s educators. Labor law divides charter school workers into two units, necessitating separate votes.

Scofield said the schools para-professionals are still a part of Bricolage Academy Educators United (BAE) and are organizing on their own timeline.

“We are stronger together and that the plan has always been for us to all be together in one unit and that plan remains,” Scofield said in an interview prior to the vote.

Bricolage Academy United Educators union vote 2
Aubri Juhasz
Bricolage teachers hug one another and union organizers following a vote in favor of unionization. May 28, 2021.

After the vote Annabelle Williamson, a Spanish teacher and co-curricular coach, thanked Scofield and the other teachers who helped lead the school’s unionization effort.

“There is so much that went into this that was unseen,” Williamson said. “Without those countless hours this wouldn’t have been possible.”

Richard also congratulated the school’s teachers.

“Now the work begins,” she said. “The road ahead is negotiations and so we’re going to have to negotiate, give and take a little, but it’s all up to the teachers. We’re just there to support them.”

Bricolage is the fifth charter school in New Orleans to successfully unionize. Unions at two of the five schools, Morris Jeff Community School and Benjamin Franklin High School, have collective bargaining agreements. Both unions were voluntarily recognized by school leadership.

While BAE faced resistance from school administration and other educators, things remained relatively cordial compared to prior unionization campaigns.

When teachers at Lusher Charter School attempted to unionize in 2016, things got particularly nasty. International High School of New Orleans fired two teachers during a union drive and had to provide them with back pay following a National Labor Relations Board ruling.

“While we are disappointed in the outcome of today’s vote and continue to believe it is best that our valued employees maintain their independent voices through direct access to school leadership, we respect the opinions of those who prevailed,” Yvette Jones, Bricolage’s board chair said in a statement after the vote. “Our task now is to ensure that all voices on this issue remain fully respected and that our school community moves forward together as one to make Bricolage Academy the most desirable and rewarding environment possible to educate, work and learn.”

Williamson said she wants Bricolage to be her “career school” and sees collective bargaining as a way to ensure teaching is sustainable.

While there’s limited research on the impact teachers unions have on charter schools, Jesse Chanin with the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans said there’s a clear consensus that unions help schools retain teachers.

“Unions create incentive for [teachers] to stay around, whether it's through pension plans or job protection,” Chanin said. “A huge problem that the charters have is teacher retention and that’s really important at an individual school level to create continuity for students.”

New Orleans charter schools have been known to burn through teachers. A study using data from the 2016-17 school year found that 29 percent of teachers did not return to the district the following year.

For many charter leaders, the perceived benefits of unions are outweighed by the disadvantages. Charters pride themselves on teacher accountability and the ability to make quick changes. Working with a union significantly impacts that process.

Despite Friday's union success in New Orleans, it’s unclear whether unionization among charter schools nationally is growing or shrinking.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which includes New Orleans charter schools affiliated with UTNO, currently represents 250 charter schools nationwide, up from 229 in 2017.

At the same time, data gathered by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows an overall decrease.

“The total number of unionized charter schools declined between 2016-17 and 2018-19 from 781 to 718,” Jennifer Diaz, the organization’s vice president of communications said. “Unionized charter schools as a percent of all charter schools also declined between 2016-17 and 2018-19 from 11.3 to 10.4 percent.”

In a statement, AFT President Randi Weingarten celebrated Bricolage Academy’s union vote.

“I am so proud of their persistence, and they will have the AFT’s support as they move to the bargaining table and beyond,” Weingarten said. “And while this is a huge moment for staff, it is also a win for the entire New Orleans community, which has endured — and overcome — so many challenges, for so many years.”

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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