By CRYSTAL CHEN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Teachers at only a few charter schools in Michigan have joined a union because, leaders say, the schools may be violating their labor rights.
The 294 charter schools in Michigan have about 10,000 teachers and 1,500 administrators, according to Buddy Moorehouse, the vice president of communications at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. The association represents operators of charters, which are taxpayer-funded.
Only about nine charter schools are unionized now, according to Nate Walker, a K-12 union organizer and policy analyst at the AFT Michigan, the state organization of the American Federation of Teachers. The most recent charter to unionize is Southwest Detroit Community School. Its staff voted in October to unionize.
The Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Michigan ACTS), a local union affiliated with AFT Michigan and represents nearly 200 members in Metro Detroit Charter Schools, has won contracts that improve job security, protect educator voices and ensure fair compensation, Walker said.
Some staff at charter schools prefer a union-free environment, Moorehouse said. “All workers have the legal right to form a union. They have the choice. There’s nothing that prohibits the teachers at a charter school from unionizing.
“The fact that only nine schools out of 294 have decided to form a union speaks volumes,” Moorehouse said.
Union organizers say employees at charter schools face special obstacles.
“The biggest challenge for staff who are forming unions is the opposition they face by the private companies that manage their schools,” said Walker. “Oftentimes employers violate the protected rights of staff by retaliating against them for trying to speak up about working conditions at their school.”
Some charters were formerly unionized but no longer are. In 2015, for example, the staff at a charter in Northwest Detroit voted overwhelmingly to form a union, but the private company that managed the school chose to leave.
“Because they did not want to negotiate with their staff,” Walker said. “They decided to destabilize the school and walk away from students rather than respect the choice the staff at the school made.”
Some companies are aware that once their staff has negotiating power, it will require them to be more transparent and accountable to their school communities, he said.
But Moorehouse says charter schools are accountable not only to their school boards, but also to the public body, which is usually a state university, that authorizes it.
Michigan’s charters are among “the most heavily regulated in the country,” and every dime that a charter spends must be publicly reported, he said.
One way to ensure the money spent for students actually go towards students is hearing from charter school workers, said Paula Herbart, the president of the Michigan Education Association (MEA). It is the state’s largest union of public school employees.
The MEA represents four units in three charter schools: West Michigan Academy of the Arts teachers, Macomb Academy teachers and job coaches (which have two separate units), and Old Redford Academy ITS teachers.
A unionized workforce gives teachers and staff the security to speak out against injustices in the classroom, “especially in for-profit charter schools,” Herbart said.
Charter schools are difficult to organize because of a “high turnover rate” among teachers, Herbart said.
If the staff of a school unionized one year and more than half of them are teaching elsewhere the next year, the new replacements “didn’t start the union, and they don’t want to be a part of it,” she said.
Most charter school teachers are young and “they arrive at their first job (at a charter) and quickly realize they have no voice in their workplace, no collective bargaining to determine wages, benefits and working conditions,” said David Crim, the communications consultant at the MEA.
“They also realize quickly that, in the vast majority of charter schools, turning a profit is the number-one goal. Educating students is not,” Crim said. “They become disillusioned and look for a job in a traditional public school where 99.9 percent are unionized which provides them with better wages, benefits and working conditions and whose top priority is education, not profits.”
Walker said several charters have hired law firms to “dissuade workers from organizing a union.”
“It disrupts the learning environment and promotes a culture of fear among the staff,” he said.
Michigan ACTS has settled a grievance with a charter school that terminated several teachers from speaking up at a board meeting. Those teachers received back pay and had the option to return to the school.
“The message to the rest of the staff was clear — you may have the right, but it does not mean we won’t violate it,” Walker said.
Herbart said that MEA still believes that if it can organize workers, “it allows them to have a say-so in their own workplace and benefits, not only their own conditions, but students they serve.”