Originally published in Washington City Paper on March 15, 2018.
Teachers at Chavez Prep Middle School in Northwest D.C. voted 31-to-2 to form a union last June, becoming the first unionized charter school in the city. Chavez Prep is one of four schools in the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School network, enrolling roughly 1,200 students across the District.
This month, D.C.’s charter community has had another first: a complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board, finding that the Cesar Chavez charter network violated federal labor law, both by making unilateral changes to the working conditions at Chavez Prep instead of allowing teachers to bargain over them, and by issuing rules across all four of its schools “interfering with, restraining, and coercing employees in the exercise of rights” guaranteed under the National Labor Relations Act.
The charter network has been under federal investigation since late August, when Chavez Prep’s new union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, filed an unfair labor practice charge alleging illegal workplace activity. Now the Regional Director for the D.C./Baltimore area, an NLRB career staffer named Sean Marshall, has issued a complaint, finding merit to all of the AFT’s allegations. A trial before an administrative law judge has been scheduled for July 11th.
The AFT filed two additional charges on behalf of Chavez Prep teachers—one in December, and another in early February. Marshall’s team is still investigating these and has not yet determined if they have merit.
Christian Herr, a Chavez Prep science teacher who sits on his union’s bargaining team, tells City Paper that he and his coworkers felt the NLRB’s complaint was extremely important. This is Herr’s fifth year working at his school, and in that time he’s had four different principals, four different assistant principals, and four different CEOs.
“We’ve had just a huge amount of administrative turnover, and all that change leads to a huge amount of fatigue,” Herr says. “Just to have the NLRB say this is not business as usual, you can’t just make any change you want, that by law you have to work with us—that means a lot to us.”
But the battle doesn’t seem quite over yet.
In December, after the union filed their second unfair labor charge, Chavez Prep principal Kourtney Miller told EdWeek that her school disagrees with all of the union’s claims, and noted “they haven’t been validated by the NLRB.”
When reached for comment on the NLRB’s new determination, Chavez Prep CEO Emily Silberstein sent City Paper a lengthy statement saying they are “disappointed that the AFT is diverting attention and resources towards complaints over minor points that have no meaningful impact on our faculty and staff or on our scholars.” Silberstein insisted that the NLRB “has not validated” the union’s charges, pointing to the scheduled hearing.
Silberstein emphasized that plans to revise their charter network’s employee handbook had been in the works long before the union formed, and that “literally making a federal case out of routine and positive handbook updates is unproductive and contrary to the spirit of collegial negotiations.” She added that Chavez Prep administrators have been meeting regularly and productively with teachers to hash out their first contract.
With regards to filing unfair labor practice charges at all, Silberstein says that “complaining to the NLRB” is a “common tactic in the AFT’s playbook as the union seeks to expand its membership in charter schools.” Resolving the complaints, she added, will be costly for teachers, management, and will “diver[t] funds from students’ needs.”
It would be extremely unusual if Chavez Prep actually opted go to trial in July—something that could easily cost them (and thus, taxpayers) tens of thousands of dollars. When an NLRB regional director finds an unfair labor practice to be meritorious, the two sides reach a settlement agreement before trial over 90 percent of the time.
Silberstein wouldn’t answer whether her school was preparing to go to trial. “We don’t believe the AFT’s complaints have merit, so we will continue to challenge them by following the NLRB’s process,” she says.
Sam Lieberman, an AFT lawyer representing the charter teachers, says they are certainly open to avoiding a trial with a settlement.
Most charter schools across the country do not have unions—just 11.3 percent according to the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools. But most major cities do have more unionized charter schools than D.C. does. In Chicago, nearly a quarter of the city’s charters are unionized, and teachers at its largest chain, Noble Network of Charter Schools, have beenleading a union campaign for the past year. In Los Angeles, nearly a third of the city’s charters are unionized, and teachers at its largest charter chain, Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, are also currently organizing for a union.
Two main factors have inhibited charter organizing in D.C. The first is that there’s no state teachers union in the nation’s capital—intermediate bodies that have proved instrumental in helping charter teachers organize unions in cities like New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Detroit. And second, the Washington Teachers Union, representing 4,000 traditional public school teachers across the District, was weakened and distracted over the last decade, following the contentious tenure of schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and a long stretch of stalled contract negotiations.
For now, Chavez Prep’s union and management will continue to hold bargaining sessions to negotiate their first contract.
Kara Howard, a first-year Chavez teacher who is also part of the bargaining team, says the constant burn-and-churn of the school, with routine staff, schedule, and leadership shifts, “makes it really hard for new teachers to be effective, because you’re spending all this time just trying to figure out what’s going on.” Howard notes that a few new teachers have already left this year.
“As a new teacher who did manage to find her footing, thanks to the knowledge of my fellow colleagues, I felt like my job was to pay it forward,” she says, in reference to her decision to join the bargaining team. “This isn’t just teachers who have been around a long time who want more power, it’s about teachers being on the front line. If we’re not being supported because of constant change, and we can’t share our ideas, then we’re not doing what’s best for kids.”
Herr says he and his colleagues don’t yet know how the Chavez Prep administration will respond to the NLRB complaint.
“We hope they choose not to drag it out,” he says. “We hope they choose to do the right thing and come to the table with us, really sit down and have a conversation about how we can best support our community going forward. That’s all we’ve been asking from the get-go. By law they are required to talk to us, and we hope they see this as a clear sign.”