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Fighting for a Voice at the Table, Philadelphia Charter School Teachers Rally for Unionization

The future of teachers attempt to unionize their school is unwritten. However, with all eyes on Philadelphia’s efforts to privatize, characterize and profitize public schools, their struggle is one to watch and support.

(Image: Class room via Shutterstock)

On August 13, Olney Charter High School students and members from the community held a demonstration outside of ASIPRA for PA’s North Philadelphia headquarters – ASPIRA owns the charter of the school – in support of the teachers’ union drive. By organizing a union with the help of the Philadelphia Alliance of Charter School Employees and the American Federation of Teachers of Pennsylvania (AFT PA), these teachers are on the frontlines of the education reform movement and among the first to seek to unionize the corporate education sector. The teachers went public with their fight at the end of last school year and in response have faced threats and intimidation by principals and administrators.

To achieve union recognition, educators have a long road ahead of them because of what and who they are up against. In Pennsylvania, they are considered “at-will” employees, which means their contracts run on a year to year basis, and are subjected to termination at any time for any reason. Forming unions in the corporate education sector has proven to be a difficult endeavor. One example of a charter school organization stonewalling a union’s right to organize occurred in Chicago throughout 2009. Teachers and faculty working for Chicago International Charter Schools, which is operated by Civitas Schools, were granted union recognition by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, but since the Chicago International Charter Schools were considered private, Civitas wanted the issue taken up by the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB ruled in favor of Civitas, claiming that the charter school network was a private, not for profit entity. Therefore, the teachers would not be granted the same labor protections as their counterparts in the Chicago Public School District. The union drive against Civitas Schools was ultimately successful. Peoples’ World published an interview in December 2009 detailing the union drive and the eventual victory.

According to Crooks and Liars, ASPIRA controls one high school in Philadelphia, and during this union drive, the non-profit spent $400,000 to stop this union effort. The article states:

ASPIRA, a non-profit organization, has committed $400,000 to fight back against any effort on the part of teachers to organize in the schools they manage. In a climate where schools in Philadelphia are closing on a daily basis, a not-for-profit charter school operator is committing nearly half a million dollars? That raises a couple of key questions for me.

And, the Philadelphia Daily News reported that the non-profit has paid out over $17,000 in public money to repel the efforts.

At the rally, the teachers were pretty clear about what they were fighting for; and, it doesn’t revolve around pay and benefits. Emily Guck who has been teaching at Olney Charter High School for two years explained that since teachers see how policy affects their students on a day-to-day basis, teachers at the charter school should be granted a seat at the table. Other teachers at the rally expressed the same sentiment. One teacher I spoke with said,

[we’re] tired of decisions being made from the top down approach. We see a lot of negative consequences that results from that. All we’re asking for is a seat at that table. We’re not saying we’re going to make those decisions. We just want to know how they’re being made, why they’re being made, and we want some input in that.

A few Olney Charter High School students showed in support of their teachers. Tyler Starks, a junior who recently transferred from Olney Charter High School to Central High School, explained why he wanted to show solidarity with his former teachers. Starks credits his Olney Charter High School teachers “for who [he] is today, because [he] wasn’t into activism until [he] met his teachers.” He felt the need to support them through their organizing efforts.

When reaching out to some of the charter school teachers via email, Ellen Pierson, who teaches twelfth grade Social Studies and tenth grade French, explained why unionizing at Olney Charter School was important. Ms. Pierson explained:

One of the reasons we feel our charter school union drive is so important in the present moment is that over the last decade or so, as we’ve seen charter schools continue to proliferate, major changes have happened in terms of who actually gets to make decisions about public education. Traditionally such decisions have been made through collaborations between elected officials, teachers, parents, and administrators. Increasingly, they are now being made in closed-meetings by the unelected board members of private organizations, who may or may not have backgrounds in education, or children in the schools for which they are making decisions

All of these different interested parties – taxpayers, businesses, administrators, parents, students, teachers, etc – all of us deserve our appropriate place at the table, and that is exactly what we’re fighting for. Teachers are major stakeholders in schools. Period (emphasis not added).

When asking Emily Guck about the importance of having community members and other stakeholders showing solidarity with the young teachers, she replied:

“Having the support of parents, alumni, teachers, and community groups in Philly means so much to me. We are forming a union to provide a better education for our students and promote transparency and communication in our school community. Our goals are very much connected to the goals of organizations like Fight for Philly, and I am grateful for their support.”

At this point, the future of teachers attempt to unionize their school is unwritten. However, with all eyes on Philadelphia’s efforts to privatize, characterize, and profitize public schools, their struggle is one to watch and support. These teachers – many in their 20s and 30s – give progressives an opportunity to support and nurture the next generation of education union activists. I will continue to report on their efforts in the coming weeks and months.

Correction: With regards to the union organization efforts in Illinois, the teachers organizing against Civitas Schools were ultimately successful in their union drive.

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