New Orleans Teachers Discuss The Future Of Unions In Charter Schools

Jun 17, 2016

This school year, two high profile New Orleans charter schools attempted to form unions. One voted yes: International High School. One voted no: Lusher Charter School. In light of those votes, teachers around the city shared their perspective on unions since Katrina and where things might go from here.

At a packed board meeting this spring, dozens of Lusher Charter School teachers spoke out in favor of, or against, a union.

“I did not join a teacher’s union because I am unhappy,” said one teacher. “I joined a union because I believe in democracy and the power of solidarity with colleagues.”

“I trust the administration to make decisions that are best for Lusher, not just for me,” said another.

Another: “We just want a stronger voice in guiding Lusher forward, and we want the security of a contract that’s more than just a pinky promise.”

“I had a terrible UTNO experience when I taught in this building a long time ago,” one teacher said, referring to the local teacher’s union. “And so I am on shaky ground when I hear about a union.”

When it came time for a vote, teachers ultimately rejected the union. But a different school came up a lot in the process. “We are not Ben Franklin, we are Lusher,” several teachers said.

Ben Franklin High School is the top rated charter school in New Orleans. In 2015, it became the first and only charter school to sign a collective bargaining agreement, leaving many to wonder if it was the first domino to fall or simply an outlier. Initially, there was some resistance at Franklin.

Michael Masterson teaches math and computer science at Franklin, and helped organize the union. “There were people who were averse to joining the old union, United Teachers of New Orleans,” he says. “Because they had experiences or had heard things from pre-Katrina that they didn’t like. The union was big. The union took people’s money and made decisions on a grand scale without having input.”

But this isn’t a return to the past, Masterson says. If you’re thinking of a traditional teacher’s union - where thousands of teachers from hundreds of schools are in one unit, under one contract - think again, he says.

“United Teachers of Franklin, that’s a chapter of UTNO,” he says. “It’s a chapter of the New Orleans union. So when we negotiate a contract, it’s only Ben Franklin teachers who negotiate our contract. We signed a contract that just covers us 60 teachers.

That contract grants teachers a planning period every day, and a right to due process after they’ve completed their second year at the school. Franklin’s contract might look very different from the contract at another charter school.

“This is the beginning of a movement,” Masterson says. “There is no question.”

Nationally, only about 7% of charter schools are unionized.

Richard Kahlenberg is a senior fellow with the Century Foundation and author of the book A Smarter Charter. He says there are two types of charter schools that are ripe for unionization.

“One are institutions that are committed to social justice, see unions as an important element in a democratic society, and therefore embrace the decision of teachers to form unions,” he says. In New Orleans, he points to Morris Jeff Community School, which is currently negotiating a contract.

Kahlenberg says there are also schools where “despite opposition from charter school operators, efforts were made to unionize because teachers felt they were being poorly treated, poorly paid and needed to have a collective voice.”

But schools with unhappy teachers can be harder to organize, because the staff leaves or isn’t asked to return the following year. The higher the churn, the harder to build union momentum.  Masterson says it’s no coincidence that Franklin was one of the first charter schools to unionize. Teachers there tend to stick around. It’s also a standalone charter school - the same as all the schools that have bid for unions so far. They’re much easier to organize than an entire charter network.

But even in small, standalone schools, not everyone is board. Jeff Derouen is a teacher at International High School who voted against the union there. He didn’t see the need.

“You know I'm the most left, liberal person,” he says. “I’m pro-union. I’m just not pro-union for our school that has 40 teachers.”

Derouen says he can go directly to the administration with any issues.  And when he and other teachers did, earlier this year, the results were good enough for him.

“Had all our teachers at our school come together with a specific issue and gone to the administration and said this is what we need done and they said sorry, no, it’s not happening, find a new job if you don’t like it, that’s when you go to a union,” he says.

While Derouen opposes the new union, he’ll stay at International High School. Fellow teacher Cole Mills looks forward to the union.

“I would like to see a stable workforce,” she says. “I would like to see programs in place to help teachers become better and be able to stay.” Because she’s never seen the kind of teacher turnover she’s seen in recent years.

But the union victory isn’t assured. Both International High School and Lusher are challenging the union elections, saying the National Labor Relations Board doesn’t have the right to hold elections at charter schools because they’re public, government bodies.

Mills’ perception is that charter schools as a whole are threatened by the idea of more union attempts. “If this is a trend, they need to stop it now,” she says. “They want to shut it down now. So maybe they’re seeing this as a route to shut it down.”

For now, no other charter schools have gone public with a union. Administrators around the city will be watching the results of these challenges closely.

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