In the wake of right-to-work, Detroit charter school teachers press for union

Dec 23, 2012

The Cesar Chavez Academy high school campus in Detroit
The Cesar Chavez Academy high school campus in Detroit
Credit via www.chavezwaterman.com

Teachers and staff at a Detroit charter school are pressing forward with an effort to unionize.

Teachers at the Cesar Chavez Academy have filed to hold an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. They hope that will happen early next year.

Cesar Chavez serves more than 2000 students on several campuses in southwest Detroit. If a majority of their members votes to unionize, they will be represented by the American Federation of Teachers in Michigan.

Teachers, union organizers and some parents who rallied in favor of unionizing the week before Christmas said the effort is driven by a desire for better school conditions, and more responsiveness from administrators and the school’s charter operator, The Leona Group.

AFT organizer Nate Walker said both groups have ignored teachers’ and parents’ concerns for years.

“They want clear policies and procedures for student discipline. They want clear policies and procedures so that they have a voice in shaping curriculum,” Walker said. “The past couple years they have been trying to advocate for their students without collective bargaining, and not making any headway.

“It’s about choice. You have teachers and staff here demanding a union now.”

Walker says The Leona Group declined to recognize the union without a formal election, and has used intimidation tactics to discourage organizing.

Leona Group spokesman Mike Atkins said the company “respectfully rejected” the initial request for union recognition, because “the structure of a secret ballot election gives everybody a chance to cast their vote.”

Atkins said The Leona Group recognizes and respects the staff’s right to unionize, and expects “an honest and vigorous campaign on both sides” in the run-up to the election.

If Cesar Chavez staff do vote to organize, they’ll become the first in The Leona Group’s portfolio of for-profit charter schools to have union representation.

Atkins also denies that the school has used intimidation tactics to discourage the union drive—something Eva Coleman disputes.

Coleman, an 11-year teacher at Cesar Chavez, said teachers want a voice through collective bargaining. She said mistreatment of some employees and a poor working environment had driven good staff members away.

“When I first started working here, we were united,” Coleman said. “It’s not that way anymore.  Certain people are favored over others.

“We’re there for the students, and the parents…to make sure everyone succeeds, and make it more of a family environment.”