Michigan’s first for-profit charter school goes union in Detroit… Will others follow?

A few days ago, something positive happened on the Michigan education landscape. The teachers of the Cesar Chavez Academy, a charter school in southwest Detroit, voted to unionize. What follows is my admittedly too short interview with Daniel Kukuk, one of the American Federation of Teachers organizers who helped make it happen.

MARK: So, what just happened a Cesar Chavez?

DANIEL: Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA), the largest charter school in Detroit, and second largest in Michigan, just won a union election by a greater than 2-to-1 margin. They elected to join the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Michigan ACTS), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), AFT Michigan, and the AFL-CIO. CCA has 4 campuses — lower elementary (K-2), upper elementary (3-5), middle (6-8), and high (9-12) — and educates about 2,200 students. The size of our bargaining unit is about 150 and is comprised of teachers, specialists, counselors, and social workers. CCA is managed by a private company, The Leona Group, so staff are not considered “public employees.” Because of this, the election, and subsequent contract, will be sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) – the federal agency that oversees private-sector labor laws.

The election victory is the culmination of months of organizing that began last April. After building an Organizing Committee, the campaign went public at the beginning of the school year, in late August, and a petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board at the end of December, after a large rally where hundreds of members, parents, and community supporters demanded a quick election. The election was scheduled in early January.

MARK: Am I correct that, while there have been successful attempts to organize in other states, that this is the first charter in Michigan to unionize? And, if that’s the case, what did we learn from these experiences elsewhere?

DANIEL: Actually, this isn’t the first charter school in Michigan to organize. AFT-MI represents two other charter schools — most notably Arts Academy in the Woods (AAW), a charter school in Fraser that unionized last year. AAW is also a member of Michigan ACTS. But, yes, there are only a few that have successfully unionized.

This is, however, the first for-profit school to go union in Michigan. CCA is the flagship school of The Leona Group, the nation’s third largest for-profit management company. Leona has schools across the country – in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and Arizona. CCA is also one of the oldest charter schools in the state, having been established back in 1996. It’s also the first school that The Leona Group managed.

There are other AFT “ACTS” projects around the country, including campaigns in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Ohio, and New Jersey. All are working to organize charter school teachers, and many have a number of successful organizing drives. We’ve learned a great deal from theses other campaigns, but perhaps most notably that it can be very difficult to successfully organize charter school employees. Each campaign presents it’s own specific set of issues so we must spend quite a bit of time preparing for our organizing drives.

MARK: Another state may have overtaken us, but, as of a few years ago, Michigan, I believe, had more for-profit charter schools than any other state. What can you tell us about the current situation in the state? How many charters do we have, and how do they break down between for-profit and non-profit?

DANIEL: We are still number one in terms of for-profit education management organizations (EMOs). Our state legislature has passed a number of laws that allow for-profit EMOs to thrive – thus the high number.

The 2010/2011 numbers: 44 for-profit companies managing roughly 180 schools, 12 non-profit schools managing 35-40 schools, and a handful of self-managed schools without an EMO.

These numbers have gone up in the past year and will continue to rise. Last year, legislation was passed that lifts the cap on charter schools in Michigan. Currently, in Detroit, more than half of all students are being educated in “non-traditional” school distracts. This includes the Education Achievement Authority (EAA) and charter schools.

MARK: Given the relatively high turnover rate of charter teachers, I would think that unionization would be a challenge. After the success here, however, are you enthusiastic about the possibilities in other charter schools?

DANIEL: For a number of reasons, unionizing charter teachers is challenging. Like many of our graduate and adjunct locals, turnover is high. We’re also dealing with private management companies that are not interested in yielding the unmitigated power they have at their schools.

Nevertheless, we do know that charter educators, like teachers in traditional (unionized) school districts, want a voice in their school communities. Overcoming fear and dealing with dictatorial EMOs is difficult, but not impossible. We are eager to continue working with charter teachers across the state. The buzz surrounding this election will certainly help new educators discover CCA ACTS, but the real victory will come after we win a contract.

MARK: Organizing in small, individual schools, I imagine, is something new for you, and will require a somewhat different model. How are you adapting to make this happen?

DANIEL: Chavez is a rather large school district — larger than many of our traditional K-12 districts. While organizing at individual schools/districts is different than organizing larger higher-ed locals, the basic model is still very much the same. We must build real relationships across our school communities and work everyday to ensure that we’re talking about our issues and united in our effort to improve them.

More than ever, we need to work alongside community groups and parents, as their voices are integral to our success. At CCA, parents and community activist were crucial in helping us get to the election. They came out en masse to Board meetings, attended our rally, and even signed a letter to The Leona Group for us.

MARK: If a teacher at a charter school happens to find this interview, and wants to pursue unionization at his/her school, what would you recommend that they do?

DANIEL: Contact Michigan ACTS! It will take some real time and effort, but we can help you develop a plan that will work at your school. You can email us at: michiganacts@aftmichigan.org. Or call: 313-393-2200. And, if you want to follow what we’re doing, you can like us on Facebook.

MARK: What, realistically, can the teachers at unionized charter schools in Michigan expect in terms of results? Where will you be focusing, and what do you think is achievable?

DANIEL: We’ve accomplished a lot already — building a authentic school communities, empowering teachers to speak-up for what they believe in, etc. Of course, we believe that there is much more to do contractually.

Charter school teachers have almost none of the protections that teachers in traditional k-12s have. Job security, professional compensation, standardized rules and procedures, and having a recognized voice in school policy are all important.

We will prioritize our bargaining platform after we survey membership and establish a Bargaining Committee. We know that we’re going to face a lot of resistance from The Leona Group, so continuing to build power — both at school and in the community — will be the lynchpin of our success.

MARK: How does the recent passage of so-called right-to-work legislation in Michigan complicate the effort to unionize charter schools?

DANIEL: As you can imagine, the so-called right-to-work legislation makes organizing even more difficult. The important takeaway from Chavez, I think, is that despite the attacks on organized labor in recent years, teachers still want to join unions. Governor Snyder claimed that people should have the right to join unions, and the educators at CCA made their decision loud and clear. They’re saying “Union YES!”

Here’s hoping the teachers at Cesar Chavez all the best as they move forward, and fight not only to protect their rights, but to change an industry which has proven itself, over and over again, to care more about corporate profits than the futures of those young Americans they’re paid to educate and the long term viability of those communities in which they operate.

[note: The top two images are from the December 20 Cesar Chavez Rally for Recognition, and the bottom one is from their victory party a few days ago.]

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  1. John Galt
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    But what about the struggling out of state shareholders of the Leona Group? Every dollar we give a Michigan teacher, is one more dollar out of a hedge fund manager’s Cayman Islands bank account. Who fights for the investors? Why do the unions only stand up for the people who do the work? Class Warfare, I say.

  2. Edward
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Craig Fahle did a show about this on WDET. (His wife is a charter school teacher in Detroit.) You can find it here:


    I liked this comment, left by Darin Stockdill:

    “This is such an important moment for charter school teachers. Congratulations to the staff of Cesar Chavez Academy. I taught there for several years, and one topic so key to this discussion is teacher evaluation, promotion, and retention. Right now, the teacher evaluation framework at CCA, and at many charters, is very arbitrary and subjective. There is no clarity or transparency in who gets hired, promoted, dismissed, etc. Personal relationships, good or bad, often figure into evaluations, and in the past good teachers have been pushed out and some bad teachers have been protected. A clear and logical framework for hiring, evaluating and promoting benefits everyone… especially if it builds in opportunities for teachers to get meaningful feedback so that they can improve their practice. Such a framework can improve instruction and help both students and teachers, but the Leona Group has never made this a priority. Now the teachers can have a say in establishing guidelines and procedures that make sense and that everyone understands.”

  3. anonymous
    Posted February 12, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

    Awesome work. Let’s hope the Leona Group doesn’t seek retribution. I could see them, for instance, closing this school system just to discourage other teachers in their network from attempting unionization.

  4. Eel
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 12:47 am | Permalink

    Does anyone find it funny/sick that the Leona Group would name their non-union charter after Cesar Chavez? I’m sure they did market research and chose the name because it tested well with the Latino community of SW Detroit, not because they had any great respect for the man. Given that, I think it’s pretty awesome to see what’s unfolding now. Irony can be beautiful.

  5. Posted February 13, 2013 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    I was surprised by how low current salaries are at Chavez. You can check them out here: http://www.chavezacademy.com/transparency-reporting.html

    As a current teacher, it’s hard for me to imagine raising a family on this salary. While I realize that many people in our country do, it’s difficult for me to wrap my head around the fact that I am very well educated, have invested money in several degrees, and have a mortgage. On this salary, it is difficult for me to imagine living in the middle class, unless a spouse has a high-paying job or am independently wealthy.

    Perhaps I always associated being a teacher as being able to live in the middle class, but we may be seeing the shift from teacher as educated professional to teacher as working class dispenser of information. If this is the path Michigan is headed on, at least I have the education to get the f*** out, earn another degree and get a job that can at least pay my bills.

  6. anon
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 7:34 am | Permalink

    in this aa.com piece on the emu regents and president susan martin, note that the emu regents tasked her with more closely interweaving the emu school of education with the michigan charter school system.


  7. Curt Waugh
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    Topher, I think you’re going to be hard pressed to find anybody to follow you on that salary bandwagon. Mid 30’s to mid 50’s is pretty middle class from where I sit. (For you hourly folks, that translates to $18-$28 per hour.)

    What I’m hearing from you is that you believe teachers should be paid above “middle class”. You’re certainly welcome to make that argument, but it should be made from a more honest place. There are a million arguments against charter schools (maybe a million-five, who knows). This isn’t maybe the best one. I think a kid fresh out of college making mid 30’s isn’t going to suffer too much.

    Now, I can see on the top end that you might have an argument. Why do salaries top out like that? I know of no other professional jobs with a top end like that. But this is a highly regulated market with weird rules, so it won’t make much sense.

  8. Oliva
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    Excellent interview–thanks, Mark.

  9. 734
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Your interview got picked up by Deadline Detroit.


  10. Posted February 13, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Curt – I agree that it’s really the top end that seems like a low cap to me (Almost all k-12 positions have caps, unlike the private sector). With this type of salary scale, it normally will take about 20-25 years for a starting teacher to get to the highest paid level.

    I think our definitions of middle class might differ (as they probably do in the entire country). From my perspective middle class means that you can pay your bills, take care of your kids/family, buy a house, and have a little bit to save. Perhaps this idea of middle class is outdated and has been replaced with one that involves debt, struggle, and a variety of other factors. Maybe mine is more of an ideal versus real. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas here.

    I would disagree with you that 30k is a great starting salary for a teacher (especially one with a Master’s). Perhaps a young, naive teacher who is idealistic, has no children and little attachments or responsibilities would be gung-ho. I think what this signals is a shift from teaching as a career to teaching as a job you do for 5 years and move on. I’d be okay with this shift, but I’m not sure educational institutions, states, or the country believes this yet.

    I don’t think I was trying to argue that this makes Charter schools bad – I’m just making an observation that you will pull in a certain caliber teacher dependent on what you pay the teacher and what you offer in terms of support, possibilities for advancement, benefits, etc. This is the same in the private sector – the more competitive offerings will get their pick from the talent pool.

  11. I'm Surprised
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised that one of these corporate education companies hasn’t already opened a Triangle Shirtwaist Academy.

  12. josh
    Posted February 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m Surprised,
    We don’t do manufacturing anymore so there is no need for a Triangle Shirtwaist Academy. But we do have a Marriott Hospitality Public Charter School: http://www.localschooldirectory.com/public-school/17339/DC

  13. Ian
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    This Rules. Capital “R.” Congratulations to those hard-working teachers who built their own union congratulations to those tireless AFT organizers who offered ideas and unbelievable support. Michigan is a union state no matter what the lame ducks in suits say. *SO* happy to see that beautiful tradition continue.

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