Detroit Charter School Could Go Union

Charter schools could be the next frontier for Michigan teacher’s unions determined to keep organizing in the wake of recent right-to-work legislation signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.

Teachers and staff seeking to unionize several Detroit charters rallied in the pouring rain Thursday at a school on the city’s southwest side to make their case for collective bargaining. The wet, umbrella-toting crowd, which totaled about 250 people, was a mix of parents, community supporters and school employees.

They gathered to publicize a request for a union election filed that day with the National Labor Relations Board. The campaign involves four campuses of the Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter which has been operating in Detroit for around 15 years. The academy’s schools, named after the famous Latino labor leader, are run by the Leona Group, a charter operator that runs more than 60 schools in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio.

If the union drive succeeds employees would be represented by the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers & Staff, a group affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the AFL-CIO. Currently only one charter school in the state is organized under the AFT. It’s the second attempt to formally unionize Cesar Chavez Academy in recent years. A 2006 effort to hold a union election through the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) unions fell flat — with MERC finding that the charter school workers didn’t qualify as public employees and dismissing the petition.

Organizers with the current campaign say a clear majority of the academy’s staff have signed on in favor of a union. Their employer, however, isn’t quite as enthusiastic. A recent request for immediate union recognition was declined by the charter operator.

Leona Group spokesman Mike Atkins told the Huffington Post they had received the letter and explained their reasons for rejecting the offer.

“We think that the system, the process that’s set up by the National Labor Relations Board for secret ballot elections giving every employee the opportunity to cast the ballot without anybody standing over their shoulder or pushing them in any particular direction is an important right,” he said. “We thought it’s gone really well for them, but if they think there are some issues that need collective bargaining that’s perfectly all right to do so — and the election will indicate that.”

Atkins expects a union election to held within 45 days of the NLRB request.

Flordemaria Garay, a social worker who has worked with the Cesar Chavez Academy Middle School for 10 years, told The Huffington Post she believes a union would help improve the environment at her school.

“I want to have competitive wages and competitive conditions for teachers, [so] teachers remain in our school,” she said. “I’ve been working at this school and seen a lot of people leave this school because we’re not heard. We’re never heard. We don’t have a voice in the way things run in the schools.”

Responding to the claim that the charter operator isn’t listening to input, Atkins of the Leona Group said his organization strives to encourage participation.

“We want everybody to to take ownership in the school and the whole reason that school works is through innovation and the thoughts and the suggestions that come from staff people.” he said, “So, if they’re not getting that, the procedures and the policies and the protocols that are set up to promote that haven’t been working as well as they should.”

In addition to the AFT, the effort also has the support of the United Auto Workers and a number of community groups.

Brenda Jacintos of the parent’s group Mujeres Mejorando Educacion (Women Improving Education), which is also requesting recognition from the Academy, told The Huffington Post the group fully supports the union. “We want teachers to stay and we want our kids to have a better education,” she said.

Rev. Bullock, president of the Highland Park NAACP and Rainbow PUSH Detroit, attended Thursday’s rally as a member of the Change Agent Consortium, a progressive coalition of labor, faith and citizen groups that’s been working with parents to support the campaign.

Noting the Leona Group’s involvement with a public-private partnership in Highland Park’s school system, he told The Huffington Post he believed the move to organize the charter schools could have important repercussions beyond the four campuses of Cesar Chavez Academy.

“The Leona Group has this huge footprint, which will determine really in large measure — also with the EAA (Educational Achievement Authority) — what education’s going to look like in the future of this region,” he said.

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