Immigration & Labor

How Charter Schools Bust Unions

By intimidating teachers. By scaring parents. And sometimes by calling the cops.
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NATALIE MATTHEWS-RAMO/SLATE

As a little girl growing up in Thousand Oaks, California, Alisha Mernick liked to play make-believe teacher. She never imagined then that as a real teacher she would one day find herself facing off with the head of her school, not to mention an armed county sheriff. But one morning this July, that's what happened to Mernick, 31, a New York University–educated visual arts teacher in her sixth year at Los Angeles' Alliance Gertz-Ressler High School, while she and a union organizer from the United Teachers Los Angeles handed out leaflets to new Alliance hires near the parking lot of a school building. The handouts contained information about the ongoing effort by teachers at Gertz-Ressler and several other schools operated by Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a Los Angeles–based charter network, to unionize Alliance teachers and counselors.

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Alliance educators began their push to unionize in large measure, Mernick says, because they were concerned their employer was not “actualizing its core values,” including the establishment of smaller classes and a personalized learning environment for its students, most of whom are poor and Latino or black. Mernick says that teachers who have signed on to the union effort want more input into decisions regarding curriculum and pedagogy. They're also questioning how the school assesses their performance and discloses how it spends its funds. Making changes in these areas, Mernick believes, will help Alliance retain the kinds of qualified teachers it prides itself on hiring.

the_grindBut speaking up can feel risky for nonunionized charter teachers. Indeed, one of the animating impulses behind the push for more charter schools and the broader school-reform movement has been an antipathy toward some of the entrenched institutions of public education — like teachers unions and the teacher protections they champion, which many charter advocates often see as an impediment to accountability and student achievement. Unlike their counterparts in traditional public schools, charter teachers work for private companies or nonprofits, which typically hire them on annual contracts and are legally allowed to fire them without cause or a formal grievance process.

Key Findings

  • Charter schools now educate 1 in 20 of students, up from 1 in 67 a decade ago.

  • Organizers have been met with harassment, intimidation, and anti-union appeals to teachers, parents, and students.

  • In 2012, 7% of charter schools were unionized, while 68% of public school teachers were represented by a union.

Mernick stood her ground that July morning as she faced the sheriff. Even though she was not violating any laws, he told her that the head of her school wanted her to leave the premises. Mernick told him she “had a protected right” to be there. And she was clear that her employer, Alliance, which had already been slapped with a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order for interfering with union organizing, “knows I'm allowed to be doing this.”

But that didn't end the encounter, during which Mernick and the other organizer were threatened with the possibility of arrest for trespassing. Finally, after about 45 minutes, the head of the school emerged to tell them they could continue leafleting until 9 a.m., when the professional development for new teachers was set to start. (Teachers and organizers are allowed to talk to employees on campus during nonworking hours but are barred from doing so on company time.) The experience left Mernick shaken. In using law enforcement to try to intimidate her, her boss had turned Mernick's outreach into a public example of what interested teachers might face if they joined the fight.

  • In 2012, about 7 percent of charter schools were unionized.

Attempts by charter school administrators to thwart teachers' efforts to unionize are hardly unique to Alliance. While there are charters that have voluntarily agreed to recognize a teachers union at their school — or have even taken the lead in crafting collective bargaining agreements with employees — many others have refused to do so, fighting unionization at every turn.

A 2014 study found that in 2012 about 7 percent of charter schools were unionized. (The same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 68 percent of public school teachers were represented by unions.) And a survey of organizing efforts involving close to 50 schools across 10 states reveals that administrators engage in a wide variety of tactics to try to prevent that percentage from growing. These actions include harassment and outright intimidation of teachers by the administration; anti-union appeals to school parents and, in some cases, even students; the use of hired guns to try to influence teachers and others to oppose unionization; and the deployment of a variety of management strategies to stall the unionization process, leaving the teachers and schools in limbo.

There are currently more than 6,700 charter schools in the U.S. In the 2008–09 school year, charter schools educated 1.45 million students; by last year, that number had doubled to 2.9 million, and it is expected to keep rising. Charters have broad, bipartisan support, including from the Obama administration, which has embraced their expansion. And while anti-union efforts don't always stop a union from forming, as the number of teachers in charters rises, the evidence of charter management's strong anti-union campaigns raises the specter of a two-tiered system, one in which charter teachers have to fight much harder for rights and protections for themselves — and their students — than their peers who teach in traditional public schools.

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While the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools maintains state and national data on charters, there is no comprehensive information about how many charters have unionized or attempted to do so. I surveyed nearly 50 schools where efforts to unionize had taken place. At almost all of them, teachers have alleged — at times in formal complaints to labor boards — being subjected by management to a variety of tactics to get them to reject unionization. This information came from press reports, official complaints, and interviews with teachers, staff, and union representatives.

The management companies I surveyed include not only Alliance — whose board is filled with prominent names from Los Angeles' business community and is the largest charter school network in that city, educating 12,500 students in 28 schools — but also, among others, I Can Schools, a nonprofit charter school management organization that manages seven schools in Ohio and one in Indiana; Aspira of Pennsylvania, which operates five schools plus a preschool in Philadelphia; Civitas Education Partners, a management company that operates four campuses of Chicago International Charter School; and the for-profit Arizona-based Leona Group, which manages close to 70 schools in five states, including some of the lowest performing schools in Detroit. The schools are almost all located in urban areas and largely educate poor students of color (one exception is New Orleans' Lusher Charter School, whose student body is slightly more than 50 percent white with slightly less than 20 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch). Many of these schools have a focus on college readiness, like those in the Alliance network, and University Yes and University Prep in Detroit, and University of Cleveland Prep in Cleveland.

Of the non-Alliance schools, there were 11 where administrators held captive-audience meetings — one-on-one or group meetings called by management and held on company time and property, in which management is legally permitted to share anti-union opinions; 12 where teachers brought charges of retaliatory action or threats against teachers involved in organizing; and eight schools where administrators made jurisdictional or legal challenges intended to impede unionization. Schools in the Alliance network had incidents of all three, as well.

Captive-audience meetings are one of the most common experiences teachers reported. These meetings — long opposed by labor advocates, who argue that they give bosses undue power to pressure and coerce employees, who have no legal right to hold their own such meetings — are typically called by management in the period after teachers go public with a desire to unionize and before a formal union vote.

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At Chicago's Northtown Academy, which is run by Civitas and is one of the first charter schools in the city to unionize, teachers organized for 13 months, from 2008 to 2009. Former Northtown teacher Brian Harris says that the union had support from 75 percent of the staff, but their employer refused to recognize it, forcing a vote. (A charter board or administration can opt to voluntarily recognize a union after teachers go public with a show of majority support. If it decides not to do so, the teachers can move to schedule a formal election or card check, depending on the overseeing agency.) He says that in the lead-up to the election, teachers were subjected to “propaganda sessions about why unions are bad.” The meetings, he says, portrayed the union as bullies with no concern for the school and the teachers as dupes. Harris says teachers were also made to fear union dues.

Meanwhile, Harris says, teachers at other Chicago charter schools were being made during work hours to sit through presentations, including one that featured a slideshow containing a list of “Important Facts About Collective Bargaining,” which noted that “Union promises are not guarantees” and that “As a result of the collective bargaining process, you could get more … but you could also end up with the same things you have now or even less.” It also warned that teachers' insurance, wages, and time off and work-related benefits could be at risk.

“While these anti-union presentations were being made, no one at the school was doing the work the public was paying them to do,” Harris says. “Those teachers should have been doing their jobs instead of sitting through weird presentations.” Even though the Northtown teachers ultimately voted to unionize, Harris says management's tactics were not only disruptive but effective. “The administration ate into the support from 75 percent to 60 percent. Some of the people on the organizing team began drinking the Kool-Aid.”

A person connected to the organizing drive at Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia, operated by Aspira, tells me that teachers there were made to attend three half-days of captive audience meetings before the union election. The meetings, which were scheduled during class hours and parent teacher conferences, were led by a New York–based union-busting outfit, National Consultants Associated, hired by Aspira, according to the Philadelphia Daily Newswhich noted the NCA's “troubled past,” including alleged family connections to organized crime, and quoted one teacher who said he was unnerved by the meetings and the consultants.

Gary Carter, a multimedia teacher at Morgan McKinzie, another Alliance school in L.A., says he and his colleagues were subjected at staff meetings to anti-union presentations where teachers were warned that unionization could result in the cutting of staff positions. That was disinformation, says Carter, and the incident — along with the one involving Mernick and the sheriff — is now the subject of an unfair labor practice charge filed in August by the United Teachers Los Angeles on behalf of the teachers.

Catherine Suitor, an Alliance spokeswoman, acknowledged receipt of the charges, which she characterized in an email as part of the UTLA's “protracted campaign against our schools.” She also wrote that “Alliance is committed to acting lawfully and in good faith during UTLA's prolonged unionization effort.” (An administrative law judge ruled in July that some of Alliance's actions in connection with the union drive violated labor laws.)

For his part, Carter says he was surprised by how hard Alliance was pushing back against the unionization effort and says he stepped up “out of a crisis of conscience” when it became clear his school “didn't have anyone in the trenches.” According to Carter, Alliance management's “No. 1 angle” is trying to convince teachers that being in a union would strip them “of the power to innovate.”

Teachers organizing in some schools have been subjected to surveillance and interference by management. For example, the National Labor Relations Board issued a consolidation of complaints against Cleveland's Northeast Ohio College Preparatory School and the I Can network, alleging that in recent years high-level administrators “coercively increased the scrutiny of employees performing their work because of their union sympathies and activities.” This included interrupting at least two union meetings and asking employees to disclose union-related activities to management.

During a union drive at Detroit's University Yes Academy, similar activity by management sowed fear among an already nervous teaching staff, according to Becky Kissel, a former UYA teacher. Kissel — who started as a Teach for America corps member at UYA and stayed on because she loved it — became involved in the 2015 union drive because there were “lots of things that were going on above the teacher level that made it difficult for us to do our work.” She cited high staff turnover and the fact that “every year there were new systems … new expectations and every year things changed, not just for the teachers but for the students,” who, she says, already lacked consistency in their lives. The teachers were also seeking a more meaningful evaluation process. Convincing other teachers to get on board was difficult, as many were scared about losing their jobs “because of the environment,” says Kissel.

One teacher who did get involved in the effort was Debra Chen, who recalls that teachers “would get pulled into all-staff meetings and asked about union activity and who was doing what.” She says administrators also “barraged” teachers with emails “highlighting the faults of unions.” I obtained one email in which the CEO of UYA's management company at the time, Lesley Redwine, wrote to teachers in 2014 that “supporting the unionization of any of our schools is NOT in the best interests of either our teachers, our students or in our pursuit of excellence.”

Teachers reported other forms of interference and harassment as well. Mernick and Carter say that Alliance at one point blocked union organizers' emails from reaching teachers' work email accounts; they also say that Alliance cut back on networkwide professional development activities in what they believe is an effort to prevent “cross implantation” of pro-union sentiment across Alliance's 28 schools.

  • “People who were already scared and nervous became even more frightened.”

Some teachers who have gotten involved in union drives have been subjected to threats of disciplinary action. One University Yes Academy teacher who was involved in the union drive at that Detroit school tells me that she and her colleague were temporarily suspended pending an investigation into whether the fact that they had hosted a Halloween event for students constituted inappropriate conduct; she says the teachers had parental approval and a long history of outside engagement with students encouraged by the administration and supported by parents. The NLRB got involved and the teachers were quickly reinstated, but the damage was done: “People who were already scared and nervous became even more frightened,” says Kissel.

In some cases teachers involved in organizing actually have been fired. One of the lead teacher organizers at Chicago Math and Science Academy was terminated, nominally for budgetary reasons, after teachers at that school sought voluntary recognition of the union from the principal. (She eventually agreed to a settlement.) Also in Chicago, 15 teachers from schools operated by Urban Prep Academies were notified that their contracts would not be renewed shortly after teachers in Urban Prep schools voted to unionize. (The union filed an unfair labor practices charge with the NLRB, and in January, Urban Prep made a deal to give more than $250,000 in back pay to teachers, as well as severance and the opportunity for reinstatement; the settlement did not include any admission of wrongdoing.)

And then there's what happened to Abi Haren, 28, who helped lead the unionization efforts at her school, I Can's University of Cleveland Prep. Following the union drive, she and six other teachers were notified that their contracts would not be renewed for the next year. “A large number of ringleaders were laid off at the end of our first year organizing,” says Haren, the daughter of two career public school teachers, who along with the others filed an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB and settled, gaining the right to return to their jobs, back pay, and written promises from the employer that it would not interfere with union efforts. Haren, now the vice president of the union, was the only one who chose to go back.

NATALIE MATTHEWS-RAMO/SLATE

Parents can also become targets of anti-union messaging, though organizers say that this is more common — or at least more likely to be effective — in parts of the country with already weak support for unions and less so when the parent body has itself had positive experiences with unions and close relationships with teaching staff.

In some areas, roping parents into the fight can nonetheless sow confusion, discord, and mistrust. In L.A., for example, Alliance teachers say that the California Charter Schools Association hired people, including alumni, to phone-bank Alliance parents to encourage them to sign an anti-union petition. Technically, this is considered legal third-party involvement, but California's Joint Legislative Audit Committee is looking into whether Alliance shared the parents' numbers with the CCSA, breaching student confidentiality rules. The committee is also investigating whether Alliance used money intended for instruction on anti-union efforts, including to pay lawyers and consultants.

Alliance apparently also found a way to reach students with negative messaging about the union drive: According to Mernick, when students used to sign on to the Alliance website to do things like see their homework assignments, they were confronted with a pop-up ad directing them to a page of anti-union links and articles. (The pop-up ads and features on the home pages of school sites have been removed.)

And at a KIPP school in Brooklyn in 2009, the New York Timesreported that while teachers, some of whom were attempting to unionize, “were at a faculty meeting, the principals met with seventh- and eighth-grade students alone” and “several students told their teachers that they had been encouraged to talk about 'negative feelings and interactions' with them.”

While it is lawful for school parents to mount their own efforts to oppose unionization, in one case the line between the parents and the charter administration has been blurred in a way that has muddied the waters. After teachers at New Orleans' Lusher Charter School went public with a petition of support that represented roughly 60 percent of teachers in favor of a union, fighting broke out among members of the school's board about whether to voluntarily recognize the union. While some believed the union should be recognized — which would have led directly to contract negotiations — others on the board vehemently opposed it. (TheLens, a New Orleans nonprofit news organization, obtained emails through a public-records request that show just how bitter the dispute got.) The administration was against it, as was the Parent Teacher Student Association, which also wrote a letter to the board to that effect and whose members reportedly called and emailed teachers, urging them to reject unionization.

While the PTSA is not a part of the Lusher administration, school administrators are represented on the PTSA board, and one Lusher parent, Erika Zucker, says she was disturbed by the actions of the PTSA during the campaign. Some members of the administration, who are also listed as members of the PTSA board, participated in board meetings during this period.

Zucker, a labor policy advocate at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, believes the PTSA's anti-union efforts were “not within [its] purview” — parents pay a registration fee to join the PTSA, which funds things like new lockers and playgrounds. “The PTSA focuses on the students and school atmosphere,” says Zucker, who believes that the body should have stayed out of the fight. The president of the PTSA did not respond to an email seeking comment on its role in the union drive at Lusher.

Ultimately, the board voted against recognizing the union but resolved to stay neutral in the election process and in the run-up to the election. In May, in a dramatic reversal from the support displayed by the petition, the Lusher teachers voted against unionization, 77 to 54.

NATALIE MATTHEWS-RAMO/SLATE

Evenwhen charter teachers do successfully unionize, some charter administrators do all they can to forestall having to bargain with them. For example, California Virtual Academies, where 750 teachers had unionized, first tried to challenge and invalidate the 2014 vote to unionize by arguing that its schools were not operated by a single employer but a group of separate employers. They lost that bid in June but in the interim refused to bargain with their teachers.

After Chicago Math and Science Academy successfully unionized in 2010, its governing company, Concept Schools, argued that the public employment board that certified the union did not have the jurisdiction to do so. The NLRB agreed and the union was dissolved in 2013. In New Orleans, the administration of the International High School made a similar jurisdictional challenge and, according to charges filed with the NLRB, has refused to negotiate with the union in the meantime.

And then there was the threat by the then-operator of Detroit's University Prep, New Urban Learning, to pull out from its management of the school were the teachers to vote in favor of a union. When the teachers did just that, the employer argued that because 10 percent of the teaching staff were Teach for America corps members and not professionals, they should not have the right to vote. Ultimately the NLRB ruled that the TFA teachers did have the right to vote, but the challenge functioned as a successful stall tactic.

And at University Yes Academy, the New Urban Learning school in Detroit, about a week after management and the teachers settled on a date for a union election, management did in fact pull out. The teachers voted to form a union, even though they had no employer to bargain with about a future contract. Then another company stepped into the breach and refused to negotiate with the staff who had voted to unionize.

The new management company, Inspired, looked a lot like the prior one — it had the same CEO and the same address — and the American Federation of Teachers filed a bad-faith bargaining charge with the NLRB alleging that the new company was an “alter-ego” of the old. This summer, New Urban Learning and the second manager, Inspired, signed a settlement agreement with the union that was working with the teachers, compelling the management companies to bargain with the staff. However, Inspired's contract was not renewed and a new management company was brought in; with more than 50 percent of the unionized staff gone, prior bargaining between the staff and the companies was no longer valid. Late this August, University Yes Academy announced it was closing its high school.

Even when management companies do not try to challenge a pro-union vote outright, they can still undermine unionization by refusing to bargain in good faith with the union — or, in other words, to make a legitimate effort to come to agreement. In 2014, the Leona Group, which manages César Chávez Academy, Detroit's largest charter school, serving more than 2,000 K–12 students at four campuses, was hit with bad-faith bargaining charges by the union working with the teachers. According to the charges, CCA refused to bargain on subjects that are mandated for bargaining, instead making unilateral decisions about contract renewals, schedules, and layoffs without the union.

These kinds of challenges are precisely why the teachers in the Alliance network are trying to get management to agree to what is known as a “fair and neutral process,” one in which management won't interfere with the teachers' organizing efforts or, if the teachers do vote to unionize, contest the election after the fact.

So far, however, that doesn't seem to be happening. Only about a month into the new school year, Mernick, the teacher threatened with arrest by a sheriff, says that Alliance has already distributed some anti-union materials and op-eds to teachers and other staff. This hasn't stopped her from “running around every day before and after school, updating our supporters and speaking with new teachers.” She has these conversations in schools, coffee shops, and, yes, parking lots; some days she doesn't get home until 9 p.m.

“We entrust educators to teach our kids so we should really entrust them to meet and make this decision about unionization,” she says. “The initial idea of charter schools was that teachers and communities would have a say in how our schools function so we could better meet the needs of our students. They were supposed to be teacher-led and teacher-driven. But until we have a contract holding them accountable to their promises, they will not be held accountable.”

Though Mernick is still shook up by her encounter with the sheriff, she says she'll keep pushing. “I will be in this as long as it takes.”

The Grind is a yearlong series looking at the unsavory  —  and often hidden  —  working conditions behind some of our cherished annual traditions. It is a collaboration with The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

About the reporter

Hella Winston

Hella Winston

Hella Winston is a sociologist and investigative journalist based in New York City.