The fight over charter schools is often just as much a battle over unions. Charter school operators and funders take relatively clear anti-union positions, and the absence of organized labor is often a selling point for charters, which boast flexible hours and pay schedules as paths toward quality education.
Teacher unions, meanwhile, tend to oppose charter schools as a drain on needed resources for traditional schools and as centers of educator exploitation. In the 2016-2017 academic year, just 11 percent of charter schools were unionized.
Yet in Los Angeles, teachers just took a big step toward reversing that trend.
For more than three years, teachers at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Los Angeles’s largest network of charter schools, have been fighting a contentious and high-profile battle to unionize with the Los Angeles teachers union, UTLA.
On Wednesday morning, a legal representative for a majority of teachers at three of the network’s 25 campuses filed union authorization cards at the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. Once the signatures are verified, the new Alliance Educators United union will be official.
The Alliance news marks a turning point not only for educators in Los Angeles, but also for scores of non-union teachers across the country, many of whom are engaged in or considering their own organizing campaigns. It also comes amid nationwide teacher uprisings, as Arizona educators continue their statewide strike for the fifth day in a row, and other educator movements take shape in states like Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Colorado.
“Throughout this entire process, I felt like I was participating in something historic,” said Alisha Mernick, an art teacher Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School who helped organize the union. “Education in our country is not valued in the way I know it should be, and you’re seeing this disrespect manifesting in a variety of different ways. We’re very lucky in California to have generous laws in giving us bargaining power, and when education is under attack, this is a role we can play in protecting it.”
Alliance administrators have led a particularly well-funded anti-union effort since teachers first started their union campaign in March 2015. While teachers initially claimed their charter network used taxpayer dollars to fund anti-union attorneys and consultants, a state audit found no evidence of fraud or misspending of public funds. What the auditors did find was that Alliance had raised $1.7 million from private donors to fight the union effort and received more than $2 million in pro bono legal services for the same purpose. As of June 2016, according to the audit, “Alliance had spent approximately $915,000 in response to the unionization efforts at its charter schools.”
Over the past three years, teachers have filed at least nine unfair labor practice complaints against Alliance, alleging that administrators sought to spy on teachers who were organizing, block UTLA organizers from coming on campus, and other forms of illegal intimidation. Most of these charges were eventually dismissed, but it was evident early on that management opposed the union drive. One leaked internal memo instructed management to keep their statements about unionization focused “on the potentially negative effects of UTLA and any union on fulfilling the school’s mission.” Toward the end of the 2014-2015 school year, the California Charter Schools Association even started to pay Alliance alumni to call parents to mobilize them against the union.
The three Alliance schools that filed for union representation on Wednesday represent more than 100 educators, out of a total of 730 teachers and counselors employed across Alliance’s 25 campuses. The schools are Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy #5, Alliance Gertz-Ressler Richard Merkin 6-12 Complex, and Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Technology Academy High School.
Mernick, the art teacher, told The Intercept that one advantage of moving forward with the union now, as opposed to waiting for more schools, is that they can then model what having a union looks like, encourage other schools to join the effort, and combat misinformation. “Alliance has been really pushing the line that organizing a union means UTLA will come in and wave a magic wand, and all schools will suddenly be under [the Los Angeles Unified School District] contract,” she said. “We can show by example; this fear of UTLA as an other will get smashed apart when teachers see us doing the bargaining, getting our contract, and shaping our conditions of employment.”
In a statement to The Intercept, Catherine Suitor, chief advancement officer at Alliance, said, “After more than three years trying to organize the Alliance charter school network, we have been made aware that some staff at three of the 25 Alliance schools have submitted cards to form a bargaining unit through United Teachers Los Angeles. As always, we remain committed to making sure that all of educator voices are heard and counted as this process moves forward.”
“By taking on the illegal anti-union attacks and forming their union, with a vision for their profession and their students, Alliance educators have catapulted themselves into a crucial leadership position in Los Angeles,” said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl. The organizing effort is especially significant, he noted, because the teachers have gone up against a charter network “supported by some of the most powerful people in California.” Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad is one such influential donor.
Edgar Hermosillo, a history teacher at Alliance Judy Ivie Burton Technology Academy High School, told The Intercept that the tremendous amount of teacher turnover has made union organizing challenging for them. “There’s a lot of things we want to change through unionization to be able to better retain teachers,” he said, adding that he does expect other campuses will file union cards in the future.
Sylvia Cabrera, a special education teacher at Alliance Middle Academy #5 said a common theme expressed among her colleagues is the desire to have a more meaningful say in decision-making. While Alliance has plenty of committees, surveys, and focus groups designed to solicit teacher feedback, Cabrera says educators “feel like these are mostly for show because Alliance gets the final decision, no matter what.”
Some Alliance teachers have vocally opposed the union, arguing that UTLA’s interest in organizing charter teachers is rooted more in a desire to bolster their own union coffers, rather than to improve education. UTLA’s membership has declined more than 25 percent since 2008, and teachers at one L.A. charter school who opted to join UTLA voted to decertify less than two years later, alleging union officials had been pushing their own agenda. Last week, two Alliance math teachers penned an op-ed expressing disapproval for the union campaign. “We are calling on the union to leave our schools, our fellow teachers, and our scholars alone,” they wrote. “We have a collaborative workplace where our voices are heard and welcomed — if we want to implement a change, we know how to make that happen.”
In 2015, Craig Winchell, a high school teacher in the network, said he couldn’t back a union that for the past decade had spent much of its time attacking Alliance’s right to even exist. “They’ve spent the last 10 years both supporting anti-charter school board members and fighting in Sacramento against what we do,” Winchell explained. Teachers unions not just in California, but also across the country, have long lobbied against charter schools — accusing them of draining funds from traditional public schools, privatizing education, and weakening organized labor. Unions still generally work to oppose charter school expansion, but have struck a more conciliatory tone in recent years when it comes to organizing charter teachers.
Still, the victory for charter teachers at Alliance comes on the heels of other significant teacher fights, including elsewhere in the charter sector. In April, teachers at California Virtual Academies — the largest network of online charter schools in California — signed their first collective bargaining agreement, winning salary increases, due process rights, and limited class sizes. Teachers at that network had fought for a union for two years, and it took another 2 1/2 years after that to ratify their first contract.
Brianna Carroll, president of the California Virtual Academies teachers union, told The Intercept that she is excited to stand by the Alliance educators. “There is nothing harder or scarier than fighting day after day to ensure that the voices of students and teachers are heard,” she said. “The fact that Alliance Educators United refused to back down after millions of dollars were spent to quiet them shows the true grit and courage of the teachers.”
In 2017, teachers at the largest and most well-regarded charter network in Chicago, Noble Network of Charter Schools, also announced their intent to organize a union. The Noble teachers adopted the same strategy as the Alliance teachers in Los Angeles. Typically, charter teachers wait until they’ve secured a majority of support for a union before going public with their plans, but in situations in which the size of the unit is considered too large to effectively organize in secret, workers may then opt to organize publicly. The Noble campaign is still ongoing.
Christian Herr, a science teacher at Chavez Prep Middle School, the only unionized charter school in Washington, D.C., told The Intercept that he thinks organizing charters “may be even more necessary than at traditional public schools” due to “more limited oversight” over the publicly funded, privately managed schools.
“When charters first came about, the idea was that there’d be less red tape, schools would run leaner, make decisions more quickly, and could really tailor stuff directly to the immediate needs of the communities they’re serving,” he said. “That all sounds fantastic, but like with everything else, eventually money gets involved and traditional power dynamics come into play.”
Chavez Prep teachers voted to unionize last June and are in the process of negotiating their first contract. “I hope we’ll start seeing more schools in D.C. organize unions,” he said. “There’s definitely whispers.”
Update: May 2, 2018, 6:54 p.m.
This story was updated to include a statement from Catherine Suitor, a spokesperson for Alliance, that was given after publication.