Detroit 90/90, the charter school management group that operates University Prep, the city’s largest charter school network, furthered its challenge of ongoing union organizing by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), recently appealing a ruling made by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last month that stated that Teach for America (TFA) members should be in the same bargaining unit as professional teachers.
AFT members and organizers say that its effort to organize charter school teachers in Detroit has seen the same kind of anti-union animus that runs throughout the corporate education reform movement. Patrick Sheehan, a former University Prep teacher and TFA member involved with organizing, wrote about the conflict last month, saying “[Detroit 90/90] hired union-busting consultants, held captive-audience meetings, intimidated teachers and ultimately threatened that if teachers voted to unionize, it wouldn’t renew its management contract — which would force UPrep schools either to find a new management company or to shutter.”
But beyond typical union-busting, organizers say Detroit 90/90 went as far as to challenge 14 TFA service members’ ballots (including Sheehan’s) before the union vote that occurred in May, sequestering them as “challenged ballots.” A later NLRB hearing determined that the ballots should be included in the unit.
The management group asked the NLRB to consider TFA members “temporary service workers,” arguing that TFA members were not professional educators and therefore ineligible to be a part of any bargaining unit. The NLRB ruled against Detroit 90/90 last month, making it clear in their ruling that TFA members could join the union being organized.
But TFA bargaining rights are still being challenged by Detroit 90/90. Detroit 90/90 appealed this NLRB ruling on August 14, arguing that Teach for America contracts include prohibitions on union activities. The union counters that Detroit 90/90 ignores the fact the contract actually states that “a TFA member may engage in any [union organizing] ‘on their own initiative” when they are not not working.
In a statement to In These Times, AFT president Randi Weingarten says Detroit 90/90’s resistance to TFA member bargaining rights is reflective of their anti-teacher sentiments:
University Prep is teaching the country a lesson in hypocrisy: it tells students and parents that TFA members are qualified to teach but are not qualified to have rights or a voice. They claim that TFA corps members— who’ve participated in union elections for years — shouldn’t be allowed in a bargaining unit with other teachers. Now, after the National Labor Relations Board rejected that claim, University Prep management has decided to appeal, using resources that should be devoted to classrooms to intimidate and silence the very teachers it says it values.
TFA has become synonymous with the charter school movement, with one-third of its members serving at charter schools, according to the organization. TFA’s close relations with charter schools has brought criticism from activists and teacher unions who say that charter school operators use the organization as trojan horse for corporate education reform and teacher displacement. As Alexandra Hootnick put it in April 2014, “TFA has funneled a growing constituency of brand-new recruits into charters in large urban districts that have recently laid off hundreds of experienced teachers, including Philadelphia (where 99 percent of corps members teach in charters), Detroit (69 percent) and Chicago (53 percent).”
In response to a request for comment, Annis Stubbs, a TFA staffer who is on the University Prep Board of Directors, directed me to TFA spokesperson Takirra Winfield, who offered a statement that been previously released to other media outlets:
[TFA is] pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership. As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.
With charter school union organizing on the rise and TFA members making up a large number of charter school teachers, union defense of TFA members’ bargaining rights may become more prominent if charter school operators elsewhere follow Detroit 90/90’s charges here.
“How is it that you’re going to expect the same work but yet still not give us the same rights as other teachers?” asks Xochil Johansen, a TFA member currently participating in union organizing at Alliance charter schools in Los Angeles. “We’re invested in our classrooms and we’re invested in our schools, and it’s infuriating that [Detroit 90/90] would demean our work and our profession in that way.”
Despite being given a different (though opponents have said ill-prepared) avenue to get into the profession, Johansen says of TFA members, “We teach, we’re in front of kids, we have our own classroom… we are still teachers.”
On the campaign trail for the 2016 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have both called for an expansion of funding for Americorps, a national service organization currently made up of 75,000 members, spread out throughout a variety of different non-profit organizations that it currently funds. One of the beneficiaries of any potential funding increase will be Teach for America (TFA). If an increase in membership is to come, charter school operators’ resistance to TFA members’ attempts to unionize may again be on the table.