A day ahead of Tuesday’s vote on whether teachers at Lusher Charter School would join an officially recognized union, union organizers were confident of victory.
A solid majority of teachers had signed a petition in April asking the school to voluntarily accept the union, a chapter of the United Teachers of New Orleans. Even after the school’s board rejected that request, most teachers seemed to side with the union in straw polls and private conversations, union backers said.
Awash in pledges of support, organizers were convinced the election would compel the school to accept the union. Tuesday evening, they learned how badly they had miscalculated.
The school’s professional employees voted 77-54 against representation by UTNO, the once powerful local branch of the American Federation of Teachers that has tried to regain ground in the city a decade after being crippled by the state’s takeover of most schools following Hurricane Katrina, the firing of thousands of teachers and the turning over of most schools to autonomous charter operators.
“When the votes came in as low as they did, we were, in every sense, shocked,” said Larisa Gray, an English teacher and union organizer.
What that outcome shows depends on whom you speak to in a city where charter schools and teachers unions have long been at odds. At present, two charters have unions affiliated with UTNO: Morris Jeff Community School and Benjamin Franklin High School.
For many who believe unions are tailored to an outdated model of public school governance — one in which outside union leaders helped bridge the gap between a bureaucratic central office and rank-and-file teachers — the Lusher vote was proof that teachers at most charter schools have no desire for a union.
Others say the Lusher vote merely shows that an aggressive school administration can stamp out a union drive, if it is so inclined.
They say the increasing number of organizing drives at charter schools in the city shows that for many classroom teachers, arguments about whether educational reform can coexist with unions are irrelevant. They say teachers want unions for a number of reasons, including a desire for a greater voice in school decisions, unpopular moves by some administrators, pay disparities and a desire for more job security.
In independent schools with different missions, cultures, challenges and faculty demographics, the fate of unionizing drives and any bargaining agreements that result are likely to differ widely.
Time will tell if Lusher’s rejection of the union proves to be an outlier or the norm.
Although charter operators traditionally oppose having unions, in 2009, about 12 percent of charter teachers across the country were unionized, with most choosing to link up with the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
To some extent, that is a result of state laws that require charters to follow their school district’s bargaining agreement with teachers. However, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have increased their charter organizing efforts in recent years.
The AFT has invested heavily in New Orleans, spending nearly $500,000 between 2013 and 2015 to try to spur organizing efforts.
That kind of spending has caused some local critics to cast pro-union teachers as pawns in the AFT’s larger agenda.
“The union had been working at Lusher for over a year,” said prominent education reformer Leslie Jacobs, a former insurance executive who is credited as a catalyst for the state’s schools takeover after Katrina and for statewide school accountability reform. “Every time someone had a bad day, there was someone there to say, ‘Well, if you had a union, you wouldn’t have this bad day.’ ”
But unions don’t fix bad days, Jacobs said.
After a divided Lusher board rejected a petition for a union reportedly signed by 60 percent of the teachers, those teachers had the chance to vote, by secret ballot, after an election process during which administrators had only weeks to offer a different perspective, Jacobs said.
She said Lusher CEO Kathy Riedlinger’s success in defeating the union, achieved in such a short time, proves that nothing was truly amiss at the school in the first place.
But Larry Carter, the local union president, and Lusher’s pro-union teachers insist that the school’s teachers took the initiative in pushing for a union, not the other way around. They did so, Carter said, because they want what others in their position have wanted: more voice in decisions, more respect and more than just a one-year, at-will employment contract.
The drive failed, he said, because teachers were strongly coerced by Riedlinger and outside interests.
“The principal and outside forces were mailing in outside material about why they should not unionize at that particular school,” he said.
Gray, the union backer, said administrators also pulled teachers in for closed-door discussions — though the union had done the same thing earlier.
The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency, oversaw last week’s Lusher election. An agency spokeswoman said nothing in its policies bans a school’s administrators from sharing their views with teachers before a vote.
But there’s a fine line between sharing views and intimidation, which is banned, NLRB spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek said. If the union camp wants to make a charge of intimidation, it would need to file any claims of coercion with agency officials, who would then investigate and make a determination.
Union organizers have not said if they will do that. But they appear to be at least considering it. Union attorneys requested a bevy of public records from Lusher on Friday, including emails or letters in which Riedlinger may have authorized outside entities to gain access to teachers’ personal or work email addresses.
Two such entities, the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana and Robbie Evans, a board member of another charter school operator, decried the union in recent letters to Lusher teachers.
Riedlinger declined to comment for this story, citing the advice of counsel and NLRB policies. However, Kahanek said nothing in a policy bars an employer from talking to the press.
Lusher and other local schools’ experiences have varied because “everyone is different,” said Les Alexander, the board president at Benjamin Franklin High School — the first New Orleans school to accept a bargaining agreement with teachers since Katrina.
Franklin’s unionization came upon CEO Timothy Rusnak’s retirement, he said. About 85 percent of teachers there were concerned about decisions made during Rusnak’s tenure, their pay and other long-standing issues.
“Whereas at Lusher, the CEO has been there, what, two decades?” Alexander said. Riedlinger actually has led Lusher, as either its principal or its CEO, for more than three decades, long before it became a charter school.
She is steadfastly supported by a parent-teacher-student association whose representatives have criticized the union. That group has long raised big money for Lusher, netting donations that resemble what some private schools receive from well-heeled donors. Franklin and other charter schools don’t enjoy that kind of backing.
Whatever the cause of the union’s defeat, the self-styled United Teachers of Lusher isn’t going away, Carter said.
Neither is UTNO. It is getting set for yet another charter school unionization election May 27 at the International High School of New Orleans.