Long time readers of Edwize may recall that on a number of different occasions, we have written about how the UFT and Randi Weingarten have reached out, in public and in private, to the charter school community in New York. [The discussion is summarized here.] We offered to support an increase in the cap of charter schools for New York City, provided that it was accompanied by labor rights for teachers working in charter schools, so that they could freely choose to be represented by a union. We even suggested ways in which charter school issues such as full funding could be addressed.
If lifting the cap was truly the objective of charter school advocates, here was a path for how it could be achieved — and it was a path laid out in public, so there would be no turning back. All that we required in return was that teachers in charter schools have the ability to exercise the right guaranteed in the first article of the New York State Constitution — to organize into a union and bargain collectively. Here in New York City, we have seen charter school teachers fired for discussing such matters as salary and missing pension contributions, and we have seen charter schools where an entire faculty had signed up to join the UFT one Spring, only to be “union cleansed” the following Fall. That is not acceptable in a state that proclaims the inviolability of labor rights in its Constitution, much less in a free and democratic society.
Our offer had the virtue of putting the question into a form where the response of charter school advocates would make it clear what their true objective is — the lifting of the cap on charter schools, or the power to run non-union schools, supported with public money, where teachers work “at will” and can be fired on the whim of The Man in charge.
Many of us on the teacher union side hoped against hope that New York charter school advocates were men and women of their public word, but we have been sorely disappointed by those who control NYCSA. These days it is not possible to read the puerile, tabloid prose of the New York Charter School Association blog, The Chalkboard, without being hit over the head by the message that their prime objective is charter schools where management exercises absolute power over teachers, that labor rights must be avoided at all costs. Lifting the charter school cap clearly comes in second, a goal only worth achieving if it can be done on NYCSA’s terms — schools where teachers have no labor rights.
The story here, like that in all too much of American public life, is one of the corrupting power of money and the undue influence of those with large amounts of it. Three significant, rather flush entities of the anti-union, far right wing — the Walton Family Foundation of Wal-Mart fame, a network of foundations and corporations connected to the corporate raider and junk bond dealer Carl Icahn, and a network of foundations and corporations connected to ultra-conservative Richard Gilder — give massive amounts of money to NYCSA, to allied organizations and to their political campaigns. [Closely connected to Gilder in his charter school advocacy and political work is the Hickory Foundation of Virginia Manheimer, Gilder's former wife.]
Between 2000 and 2004, the Walton Family foundation and the Gilder Foundation gave over $900,000 to NYCSA. Over the same period of time, the two foundations gave over $1.5 million to the New York Charter School Resource Center, an organization that has shared the same address and a number of the same principals [most prominently, Gerardo Vasquez and Peter Murphy, a particularly venomous foe of teacher voice and teacher unions] as NYCSA. Walton and Gilder also give large sums of money to other foundations, such as the Robin Hood Foundation, which in turns funded charter school activities in New York and elsewhere. Icahn sponsors his own charter school in New York, and funds it and campaigns of New York charter school advocates.
According to tax returns and corporate filings, NYCSA shares a single address [Four Chelsea Place in Clifton, NY] not only with the Charter Resource Center, but also with the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability [FERA], the Brighter Choice Foundation, and the School Choice Scholarships Foundation.
FERA is the successor to the ultra-conservative Empire Foundation and is part of the right-wing State Policy Network, a coordinating body of anti-union right wing state foundations. It was an affiliate of CHANGE-NY, a now defunct anti-tax, hard right wing umbrella group in New York. FERA’s 2004 tax return includes a $200,000 contribution from the Gilder Foundation [Richard Gilder and Virginia Manheimer sit on the FERA board] and a $170,000 contribution from the Charter Resource Center. FERA President Thomas Carroll, often in the news with attacks on teacher unions and on labor rights for teachers in charter schools, is also the founder and chairman of the Brighter Choice Charter Schools. Caroll and Gilder sit together on the board of School Choice Scholarships Foundation.
And there’s more. Roger Hertog, publisher and financier of the New York Sun, also sits on the board of School Choice Scholarships Foundation. [Now you know why Carroll's byline appears regularly in the Sun, and why the Sun editorialized that the UFT's two charter schools should be closed down, simply because we wouldn't agree to an increase in the charter cap without accompanying labor rights -- so much for caring about creating good schools for kids.] Hertog, Manheimer and Brian Backstrom [Charter School Resource Center Treasurer, FERA Vice-President and Brighter Choice Foundation Vice-President] all join Gilder in the Club for Growth, a national anti-union policy organization dedicated to laissez-faire economic principles.
He who pays the piper calls the tunes, and the anti-union troika of Walton-Gilder-Icahn has NYCSA and its allied organizations doing their bidding. NYCSA is completely bought and paid for. The anti-union, right wing economic agenda comes first, and charter schools and the students their serve come in a poor second.
It was this anti-union agenda that led NYCSA to play a central role in facilitating the introduction of the notorious union-busting law firm, Jackson, Lewis and its Atlantic Legal Foundation, to New York charter schools. In the past, Edwize wrote extensively about an Atlantic Legal Foundation conference specifically organized for New York Charter Schools on the subject of union busting; in addition to helping facilitate this conference, NYCSA has had the Atlantic Legal Foundation sponsor workshops at its annual conference.
Desperate to make a case — any case — against labor rights for charter school teachers, Chalkboard, the NYCSA blog, has now twice referred to events in Broward County, Florida. In fact, the events in Broward prove exactly the opposite of what the Chalkboard claims. The local teachers’ union signed up a majority of the teachers at the seven Pembroke Pines Charter Schools, only to have the County Commissioners renege on an agreement to recognize the union as the collective bargaining agent once a majority of teachers signed authorization cards. The ostensible reason? The wording on the card was “ambiguous,” so teachers did not understand what they were signing. Once the teachers were signed up, a full court pressure campaign was launched to stop union recognition, and a couple of teachers were pressured into endorsing this claim.
There’s only one problem with this scenario: teacher unions don’t get to put any old deceptive wording on an authorization card — this is an area of labor law which is tightly regulated by the government, precisely so there is no question about the intentions of the individuals who sign them. And because the signers were teachers, we are talking about individuals who have, at a minimum, a four year college degree. To believe the story of teachers being misled told by the Chalkboard and the usual anti-union forces [Michael Antonucci of EIA and the State Policy Network, to which FERA is affiliated], you would have to start from the premise that college graduate charter school teachers are unable to comprehend the most straightforward and simple written English.
What we have in the Pembroke Pines Charter Schools is precisely the problem that has led American workers to increasingly turn to ‘card check recognition’ in union organizing drives. Rather than recognize unions once workers have indicated their desire to have one, anti-union employers engage in long, drawn out campaigns to destroy the union that go on for years, with the introduction of professional union busting operations that refuse to negotiate contracts, that harass and fire union leaders, that tie up union victories in elections with court challenges, and that use intimidation and pressure to coerce individual employees to withdraw their support for their unions. The New York Times article “Who Drove Out A Union? South Carolina Factory Provides a Textbook Case.” [$] fully documented one particular vicious iteration of this sort of campaign by the very law firm that NYCSA brought into New York, Jackson, Lewis. Immediate recognition of the union in the Pembroke Pines Charter Schools would have made that sort of campaign impossible.
Being from New York, it is hard not to think of the old folk definition of chutzpah when reading The Chalkboard these days. Chutzpah, the saying goes, is exemplified by the defendant who kills his parents, and then begs the court’s mercy because he is an orphan. If any blog fits that definition, it has to be NYCSA’s Chalkboard. NYCSA puts itself in the pay of Walton, Icahn and Gilder, brings in notorious union busters like Jackson, Lewis and the Atlantic Legal Foundation, and then calls NYSUT a gorilla and a thug. They spurned the UFT’s offer to fashion a compromise that would help charter schools, because they were intent upon forcing legislation that would continue to deny charter school teachers labor rights. Now that they have been turned back at that effort, not once but twice, the playground bullies with the bloody noses are telling everyone how they were victimized. Their tale evokes as much sympathy as Donald Rumsfeld’s forced retirement from public life.
But there are real losers in this story — charter schools that understand their mission as serving needy kids, and that want to attract and retain the best teachers to that end. They are being terribly ill-served by a NYCSA that places an anti-union agenda of its funders and of dogmatic ultra-right ideologues like Carroll and Murphy above the needs of their students, their teachers and their schools. How long can they continue to let a NYCSA which is bought and paid for speak in their name?
I am indebted to the AFT’s Ed Muir for much of the research cited in this piece.