NYCSA is advocating for the continued power to deter and intimidate teachers who want to exercise their rights to join unions. It has been arming charter school administrators to do just that. For those of you who don’t understand a lot about unions, this is what we mean when we talk about union busting. And the case of Nichole Lau is not just an act of retaliation against someone who did the right thing. It’s a message to others to keep in line. It’s the hard way. Words cannot express my contempt.
Several states already use card check for their public employee collective bargaining laws. It is a key component of the Employee Free Choice Act, the labor movement’s bill to reform private sector organizing in America. And it’s a feature of Canadian labor law as well. This was “the easy way” that NYCSA was referring to. Conflating this with “requiring all charter schools in the state to unionize” seriously muddies the waters. NYCSA is defending a set of rules that give its members maximum freedom to intimidate and make use of the counsel of union busting consultants. In short, freedom to make more cases like Nichole Byrne Lau’s. Arguing for a set of rules that short circuits these tactics is not the same as requiring unionization.
My friend Nichole Byrne Lau worked for Wiliamsburg Charter School in New York City. Her students loved her and her boss gave her a glowing review. However, in May she started asking why the 401(k) deposits didn’t seem to match what was promised, and why teachers at the school, despite working more hours than public school teachers, were being paid less.
Employees ask questions about compensation all the time – asking their bosses for raises, or asking their companies’ HR departments about 401(k) errors. But apparently Williamsburg Charter School’s business model is based on paying teachers less than they are worth and less than they could get elsewhere, and trying to keep them from finding out about it, because the moment Nichole talked with a few fellow teachers about these concerns, the school fired her. Even worse, when the Daily News called, the principal claimed that “[Nichole] hates children. She’s a racist,” a smear completely refuted by both her students and her evaluations, and which he later stopped making once more newspapers started calling.
For more details and links to the many articles in the press today about this issue, see Edwize’s great summary.
The popular press is rife with negative statements about unions, like the claim that they make it hard to fire bad people, for example. When I started going to policy forums and met people involved with unions, I asked them to please articulate good, concrete reaasons why the union makes things better. Here’s an easy one: someone shouldn’t be fired just because she asks questions the bosses would rather not hear.
The wonderful Julie at the wonderful School of Blog:
Chris and I discussed this, and we concluded that the incident doesn’t just show why charter schools need unions — it shows why people need unions. Disclosure: both Chris and I have worked for unions. But the point is, when you have a union contract, there are clear and fair channels for being fired.
The Chalkboard doesn’t think that “all charters need unions just because of one dude who seems to be on an ego trip.” I disagree. Charter school leaders tend to be very strong personalities who decide to open schools because they think they know how best to run a school. For a lot of these leaders, not wanting to have unionized teachers is as much about cost saving as it is about not having another entity that teachers can report to. I know people like this, and my sources tell me that the WCS school leaders are of that type.
Chris says that this incident is why mandatory unions in charter schools are necessary. He says that unless businesses (like schools) are forced to have unions, you are always going to have things like this that are just not reported. The state should say you have to have unions, and if the teachers in a charter school want to negotiate their own contract they should be able to do that.
The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the New York City teachers’ union, believes charter schools can work if regulated for quality—and has started two charters in New York City to prove the union contract doesn’t inhibit the success of charter schools.
But Pataki, Bloomberg and others are trying to make it nearly impossible for the union to sign up members at charter schools. During the fall, a group of union-busting law firms held a conference specifically to keep unions out of charters.
What is at the heart of the matter here is the way that American society is willing to devalue their teachers. This is one of the central tenets of Asian education that I *do* respect — not the blind faith and unwillingness to speak out or question authority — but the status that teachers and professors are accorded in Asian society. This disrespect extends from the children to the parents on up to school admininistrators.
Ask my friends who are teachers what it was like in their first few years, how hard they struggled to control their classrooms, and how much they consistently had to lobby for resources from the schools so that they could DO their jobs of teaching kids. Ask them how they felt when, freshly minted Ivy League degree in hand, people asked them, “But you went to Harvard/Stanford/Columbia – why would you want to teach?!?” with just enough scorn and derision in their voices to make the low salaries and long hours sting that much more.
I would argue that without retaining teachers who are qualified (and Byrne Lau definitely sounds like she fits the bill with a degree from Columbia Teachers University) and paying more to make it a more attractive job, the American future dies as well. Never forget that all of our future employees/leaders/CEOs/presidents come out of the schools, pubilc, private, charter or parochial. Investing in good teachers makes logical sense because it’s an investment into our future.
I’d also like to debunk an old canard that “those who can’t do, teach.” It’s that many can’t be bothered to teach because there is little to no reward in it. Education can and should pay.
Fight on Nichole Byrne Lau!
All workers benefit from unionization. There’s no way that my voice (however beautiful my mother may think it is) competes with that of 80,000 New York City teachers facing down Joel Klein’s efforts to Walmartize education. When we work to improve the lots of working people, we work to help our kids too.
Let’s take the gag off Ms. Lau and support unions, so as keep such implements far away from our children.
As president of the UFT, Weingarten offered repeatedly back an increase in school charters for New York on the condition of labor rights for teachers. Her overtures were been rebuffed.
Do charter schools need unions? about charter school teachers in New York being fired for mentioning the ‘U’ word. Fortunately things turned out all right for one teacher, because she was so highly regarded.