The question of whether teachers can force the boards of charter schools in New Orleans to recognize their unions is likely headed to the courts.

Almost all public schools in the city these days operate as independent charters, and almost all of them do so without unionized teachers. But staff members at a handful of schools have begun to organize and demand collective bargaining in the past few years.

At International High School of New Orleans and Lusher Charter School, that has led to clashes between employees and management.

On Wednesday, the National Labor Relations Board dealt management a setback by ruling that charter schools in New Orleans are subject to federal law on unionization. That means if employees can muster a majority vote, the boards in charge of their schools must recognize and negotiate with their unions.

Not that negotiations are about to start any time soon. One of the schools in question, IHSNO, still has to address an unfair labor practices complaint against it. And even after that, the fight is likely to continue in the courts. 

In a statement, International High School attorney Brooke Duncan said, “We continue to maintain that IHSNO as a charter school is not subject to jurisdiction under the National Labor Relations Act … and we expect the courts will eventually decide the issue."

Lusher attorney Mag Bickford did not immediately return a call for comment.

Employees at both schools launched union drives last spring and asked the charters' boards to voluntarily recognize their unions. When that failed, they asked the NLRB to hold elections.

At International High School, teachers and aides voted in favor of union representation. At Lusher, teachers voted it down, but a smaller group of employees made up mostly of teachers’ aides voted to join.

Both charter boards challenged rulings by the NLRB's regional director that the schools are subject to the agency's jurisdiction. They argued they are exempt because they are in effect governmental entities.

Wednesday's rulings, from the NLRB in Washington, D.C., said the schools are not exempt from the National Labor Relations Act. It based the decisions in part on rulings regarding charter schools in Pennsylvania and New York, which have similar legal structures to those in Louisiana.

One member of the labor board dissented in each ruling, saying the New Orleans charter boards are equivalent to public school boards and thus are political subdivisions of state government.

Jim Randels, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans, called the rulings a “victory for public education in New Orleans.” He said the rulings will allow teachers to work more closely with school administrators.

Last year, Lusher administrators contended that a union would divide teachers and school leaders and that it was unnecessary because charter schools already offer a uniquely close line of communication.

The union filed an unfair labor practices complaint on behalf of the teachers at IHSNO with the NLRB last summer; that was put on hold until the ruling was issued.

Now that complaint will proceed, starting with a hearing by the NLRB's regional board. Duncan said it could go back to the national board. After that, International High School could take the matter to a federal appeals court.

Only two collective bargaining agreements for public school teachers have been negotiated in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of teachers were fired after the storm because there were no students. Since then, almost all the schools in the city have become charters.

Benjamin Franklin High School negotiated a contract with its teachers in 2015. Morris Jeff Community School negotiated a three-year contract with its union in June.

Brad Richard, a teacher and head of the creative writing program at Lusher, is a member of the United Teachers of Lusher.

“United Teachers of Lusher couldn’t be more pleased by the NLRB’s ruling, which vindicates charter school teachers who act on their legal right to pursue collective bargaining,” Richard said.