Los Angeles Charter Teachers Say Their Administration Is Aggressively Trying To Bust Their Union

Bruce Vail January 13, 2016

(ICFA)

A for­mer­ly low-pro­file union orga­niz­ing cam­paign by teach­ers at the largest char­ter school oper­a­tion in Los Ange­les is emerg­ing into the pub­lic spot­light as the char­ter oper­a­tor is ramp­ing up its effort to defeat the orga­niz­ing effort, teach­ers say. 

The school oper­a­tor, Alliance Col­lege-Ready Pub­lic Schools, has been so aggres­sive against the union that a local judge issued an injunc­tion Decem­ber 3 against the operator’s appar­ent labor law vio­la­tions. But the injunc­tion isn’t deter­ring Alliance’s broad­er efforts against the union, labor activists say, and the com­pa­ny is sched­uled to go to court again next month in an unusu­al effort to over­rule state labor law and employ slow­er and more cum­ber­some fed­er­al labor laws to defeat the union.

All of this is tak­ing place in a high­ly charged polit­i­cal atmos­phere sur­round­ing the pub­lic schools sys­tem (for­mal­ly known as the Los Ange­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict), the Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les (UTLA) union and an anti-union char­ter school lob­by backed by bil­lion­aires like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and local phil­an­thropist Eli Broad (In These Times’ Mario Vasquez report­ed ear­li­er this year on how this atmos­phere was prompt­ing fears of a teacher strike). The push to expand char­ter schools in LA is in full cry, union back­ers report, with the orga­niz­ing dri­ve at Alliance emerg­ing as a ral­ly­ing point for opposition.

The cam­paign against us has been ille­gal, and incred­i­bly demean­ing and debil­i­tat­ing,” says Xodil Johansen, a teacher at one of Alliance’s 27 mid­dle and high school cam­pus­es spread across L.A. An active union sup­port­er, Johansen was among some 70 teach­ers who opened the cam­paign in March with a let­ter request­ing that Alliance admin­is­tra­tors remain neu­tral as the orga­niz­ing dri­ve got under­way. The admin­is­tra­tors nev­er offi­cial­ly answered that request, she says, and instead have steadi­ly inten­si­fied efforts against the union.

It’s esca­lat­ed more and more,” Johansen says. I think it real­ly crossed the line when you start­ed to get grilled by admin­is­tra­tors. It was much more per­son­al than it should have been. As teach­ers, we are pro­fes­sion­als and the deci­sion to join a union should be a pro­fes­sion­al one. The inti­ma­tion was that you would suf­fer per­son­al­ly, that your liveli­hood was on the line. … Alliance has done every­thing to make it more personal.”

Based on con­tin­ued com­plaints by Alliance teach­ers and UTLA, the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Employ­ment Rela­tions Board, or PERB, (under Cal­i­for­nia law, char­ter school employ­ees are con­sid­ered pub­lic sec­tor work­ers and fall under PERB juris­dic­tion) went to Los Ange­les Supe­ri­or Court Judge James C. Chal­fant for an injunc­tion against Alliance. Accord­ing to a union statement:

The injunc­tion … comes after Alliance man­age­ment repeat­ed­ly vio­lat­ed an ear­li­er tem­po­rary restrain­ing order. … In Octo­ber, the judge ordered Alliance to meet with teach­ers and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, stop block­ing teacher emails, to end harass­ment and sur­veil­lance and not to inter­fere with teacher union orga­niz­ers. PERB has already issued four unfair prac­tice com­plaints against Alliance for vio­la­tion of Cal­i­for­nia labor law. The injunc­tion will remain in effect until the PERB pro­ceed­ings on all com­plaints are completed.

Alliance’s union-defeat­ing efforts show signs of being part of a broad­er effort to expand the char­ter schools and defeat unions, says Jesus Quinonez, a part­ner in the Bush Got­tlieb law firm that rep­re­sents UTLA.

He point­ed to a dis­clo­sure this fall that a phil­an­thropic foun­da­tion con­trolled by local financier Eli Broad pro­pos­es a mas­sive expan­sion of L.A. char­ter schools so that half of all the city’s stu­dents would be enrolled in char­ters (up from the cur­rent 16 per­cent). A memo out­lin­ing the pro­pos­al named Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Walmart’s Wal­ton Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion as poten­tial donors to the mul­ti-year effort. These names are all promi­nent in a nation­al char­ter school lob­by that is strong­ly opposed to unions, Quinonez notes.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, then, that Alliance has enlist­ed the high-priced law firm of Proskauer Rose to make a direct attack on the right of L.A. char­ter teach­ers to orga­nize, he con­tin­ues. Court action is sched­uled to begin Jan­u­ary 28 in a case where Alliance is argu­ing that PERB should not have juris­dic­tion over the char­ter teach­ers, but that juris­dic­tion cor­rect­ly belongs with the fed­er­al Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB).

This is a bla­tant end run around PERB, which Alliance regards as too pro-work­er and too pro-union, and a bet that the school’s anti-union cam­paign will be more suc­cess­ful at NLRB, Quinonez says. At the very least, Alliance seems intent in tying the union orga­niz­ing effort up in court for an extend­ed peri­od of time, he tells In These Times.

There’s a bla­tant dis­re­gard for the law. They see labor law as a nui­sance,” Quinonez concludes.

They’ve done a lot of ille­gal union bust­ing,” agrees Johansen. Teach­ing is a chal­leng­ing pro­fes­sion under any cir­cum­stances, she adds, and Alliance man­agers just make it more dif­fi­cult with their heavy-hand­ed tac­tics. I don’t expect the union to be the answer to all of our prob­lems, but we need a union as a first step.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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