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: firstname.lastname@example.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.