NLRB Rules Teach for America Members Have a Right to Unionize

Originally published on The American Prospect’s Tapped blog on August 5th, 2015.

In another interesting development for the movement to unionize charter schools, the National Labor Relations Board ruled last week that Teach for America corps members should have been allowed to vote in a Detroit charter union election earlier this year.

Detroit 90/90, a charter management organization for the University Prep charter network, said that Teach for America teachers shouldn’t be permitted to vote because they are not professional employees. Instead, they argued, TFA members should be viewed as long-term substitute teachers.

Patrick Sheehan, a Detroit TFA-er told MLive that he and his fellow corps members are really pleased with the NLRB’s decision. “U-Prep hired us to teach just like other teachers. Making the legal argument that we are not professionals means one of two things: Either Detroit 90/90 doesn’t respect the work we do with students or they lied to prevent us from organizing a union.”

Shaun Richman, the AFT’s deputy director of organizing told The Prospect that University Prep’s argument was an insult to all TFA corps members and alumni around the country. “Nobody would have dared to say that TFA corps members are not really teachers even a year ago,” said Richman. “But now that they want a union, suddenly those kinds of insults are apparently on the table.”

While Teach for America does not officially take a stance on unionization efforts, Takirra Winfield, TFA’s head of national communications, praised the NLRB’s decision. “We’re pleased that the National Labor Relations Board acknowledged that our teachers are professional, qualified educators who are deeply invested in their school communities and are able to make individual choices about their union membership,” she said. “As a TFA network, we know there is tremendous strength in the diversity of perspectives among our talented corps members and alumni as they work to help make certain that every child has access to an excellent education.”

There are roughly 11,000 current TFA teachers and more than 37,000 alumni around the country. About 60 percent of Detroit Teach for America corps members work in charter schools. Nate Walker, AFT-Michigan’s K-12 organizer and policy analyst, was a former Detroit TFA-er himself.

It’s likely that we’ll continue to see more union campaigns launched at charter schools, and more Teach for America members among them. Many TFA-ers are progressive and young, and national surveys find that young Americans are among the country’s most ardent union supporters. According to Pew, fully 55 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 held a favorable view of unions, while just 29 percent held unfavorable ones.


In Hot Water: Volunteers reach out to people whose water has been shut off

Originally published in Baltimore City Paper on May 26th, 2015


Flyers left at residents’ door | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

On March 26, the Department of Public Works (DPW) announced that 25,000 customers with unpaid water bills would have their water service turned off. But it wasn’t until mid-May that there was a list of which residential addresses would be or had already been targeted. On May 16, volunteers with the Right to Housing Alliance (RTHA), a local human rights organization, canvassed homes on the list.

On May 17, the second day of canvassing, a group of 10 volunteers met up at RTHA’s headquarters on Holliday Street, near Fallsway under I-83. It was a humid, hot day, the kind where you don’t head outside without bringing water—which, for the volunteers, drove home the importance of access to water.

Though nearly 90 percent of the shutoffs have been in Baltimore County, RHTA is focusing, for now, on the 170 homes on the list in Baltimore City. After Saturday and Sunday, canvassers had reached just over 50 homes.

Jessica Lewis, a lead organizer with RTHA, went over some canvassing basics before the volunteers hit the streets in small groups. If someone answers the door, Lewis instructed, make sure to ask if this address has had a water shutoff.

“We’re not going out to ask if they themselves did anything wrong, make your question passive,” she said. Ultimately, the volunteers’ main “ask” would be to invite residents to come to RTHA’s Tuesday night meeting, where individuals impacted by water shutoffs can brainstorm collectively on a potential response. “Don’t be afraid to agitate them a little,” said Lewis. “You can ask them if they think having their water shutoff is fair.”

The Baltimore Sun reported that businesses, government offices, and nonprofits owe $15 million in outstanding water bills, more than one third of the total $40 million that DPW seeks to collect. Yet six weeks into the water shutoffs, no delinquent commercial properties have been targeted by DPW. By contrast, more than 1,600 residents have lost service.

Half of Baltimore City residents rent their homes, and the water shutoff situation is particularly worrisome for tenants. According to Matt Hill and Zafar Shah, attorneys with the Public Justice Center, low-income tenants cannot get their own water accounts, and DPW does not allow them to challenge inaccurate bills because the water accounts are not listed in their name. “Public Works’ new policy is short-sighted and downright inhumane to low-income renters who are often caught in between the water company and their landlords,” Shah and Hill wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed. “At the very least . . . the city should allow renters to open accounts in their own names and permit them to challenge inaccurate billings and leaks.”

The RTHA volunteers split up into small canvassing groups. One group, including Molly Amster, the director of the Baltimore Jews United for Justice, and Sara McClean, a dietician with Moveable Feast, spent most of the day in Edmondson Village, though no one answered most of the doors they knocked on. At one house on Culver Street, a woman opened the door, closed it quickly, and then had her son come out to talk. He seemed ambivalent about discussing his water situation, but he took the resources offered back inside.


Canvassing | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

Lewis told volunteers that many of these homes may turn out to be abandoned, and indeed many addresses that volunteers visited appeared to be vacant properties. Volunteers took notes after each visit, documenting, among other things, the building type, whether or not they had a conversation with a tenant, and whether the property looked occupied or vacant. Volunteers left blue RTHA flyers outside most of the doors they visited that listed information on how to get support and more involved in organizing.

Another small group of canvassers met a man on Edgewood Street who described the hurdles he had to jump through to keep water on in his house, a particularly stressful situation because he has asthmatic children. He told the canvassers that he paid almost $400, including payments for water bills and jugs and bottles of water for his family.

Earlier in April, RTHA launched an online MoveOn petition calling for a moratorium on the water shutoffs. As reported in The Baltimore Brew, Tony Simmons, an organizer with RTHA, said that they will be organizing and petitioning City Council until there is more clear information about what’s going on; many residents are skeptical that their bills are even correct. The Rawlings-Blake administration says the shutoffs are necessary to pay for infrastructure improvements around the city. By Sunday night, RTHA had collected more than 2,000 petition signatures, and announced that it will be organizing more canvassers at its offices every evening that week. As of press time, they have collected more than 3,000 signatures.

Detroit is Bankrupt and Creditors Are Looking To Their Renowned Art Museum

Originally published in The JHU Politik on May 6th, 2014.

Should Detroit have to sell off its art collection in order to pay its bills? To what extent is art off limits from municipal politics, especially when worker pensions are at stake? Over the past year these thorny ethical questions have cast an uncomfortable shadow over the Motor City.

When the city of Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy this past summer—with debts estimated at between $18-$20 billion—many wondered how on earth the city would find the funds necessary to recover from this colossal financial crisis. With an estimated 700,000 residents, Detroit is the largest city by population ever to file for Chapter 9. The city also scored the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in United States history.

Unlike many other large art museums around the country, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) is owned by the city and some of its 65,000 pieces were purchased with city funds. The internationally renowned collection includes, among others, enormous murals by Diego Rivera, famous pieces by Vincent van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pieter Bruegel, Edgar Degas, Rembrandt and historic ancient sculptures. Christie’s, a fine arts auction house, appraised the art purchased with city funds to be worth between $454 million and $867 million, but some experts have speculated that the art could be worth more than $2 billion.

In March 2013, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr to serve as an Emergency Manager for Detroit’s financial operations. After Detroit filed for bankruptcy in July, Orr requested an appraisal of the city-purchased art.

Orr’s spokesman Bill Nowling told Reuters, “We obviously don’t want to get rid of art” but “if we are going to ask creditors to get a big haircut, we have to look at how to rationalize all of the city’s assets, including the artwork.”

The threat of auctioning off the city’s art has yielded great controversy.

“In the world of the great museums, this is unprecedented as far as I know,” said Ford W. Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums.

“People need to understand that this is so much more than a Matisse in a museum,” DIA Museum Director, Graham W. J. Beal said. “It’s a piece of American history.”

But, on the other side of the issue, significant problems loom. Political leaders remain struggling to figure out what will be done to meet the city’s pension obligations—benefits that retirees and other employees have been legally promised. Officials estimate that Detroit’s pension obligations could be underfunded by as much as $3.5 billion, which means the city will have to either take money previously spent elsewhere to pay for it, or somehow disclaim its payments.

Many city employees, who have planned their retirement around this expected money, argue that pensions are protected under the Michigan Constitution. Indeed, Article 24 of the Michigan Constitution states that public pensions “shall not be diminished or impaired…and the state must help to make sure pensioners are paid in full.”

A poll commissioned in late September by The Detroit Free Press and WXYZ-TV found that while 78% of Detroit respondents opposed selling DIA art to pay creditors, 75% of respondents also opposed cuts in city workers’ pensions to pay off debts.

Something’s gotta give.

Museum officials hope to reach what they are calling “The Grand Bargain” with the city: in return for helping Detroit pay off some of its pension obligations, they want the city to relinquish ownership of the DIA to a nonprofit organization. This handover would shield the museum from future financial responsibility related to Detroit’s debts.

In January, the DIA announced that it would raise $100 million for pensioners, joining private philanthropic foundations, including The Ford Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which had already pledged $370 million towards the effort. Governor Snyder also asked his State Legislature to provide an additional $350 million. The hope is that this combination of state and private money, totaling a fund of $800 million, could both protect the art collection and help the city pay off its pension obligations.

Politically, the last thing any politician, especially a Republican facing re-election, wants to be portrayed as is “bailing out” Detroit. “This is not a bailout of banks and other creditors. This is focused on helping reduce and mitigate the impact on retirees. It’s focused on protecting assets,” said Snyder in a press conference. But money is fungible, and thus it is unclear exactly what money will go where, and when. Many organizing workers groups allege that investors, bankers and international businessmen will indeed be repaid handsomely as they continue to lose their promised retirement benefits.

This “Grand Bargain” was proposed by mediators in the bankruptcy, led by Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. In a press release, the DIA calls the deal, “a win/win/win strategy”, saying it provides for a quick exit from years of costly litigation, gives money to pensioners, and protects the museum’s valuable art.

However, it is uncertain whether this “Grand Bargain” could actually prevent creditors in bankruptcy court from demanding the art to be sold. The fact is that Detroit has relatively few assets beyond its valuable art collection and the city remains in massive debt.

But as Tom Campbell, Director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, put it, “Even in the darkest days of New York City’s fiscal crisis of 1975, and the national economic meltdown of 2008, the cultural treasures closely identified with our own city were never on the table — never considered an asset that might be cashed-in during a crunch to bridge a negative balance sheet.”

Many argue over the impact that selling the art would even have for the city of Detroit. Some say it would be a shortsighted betrayal, hurting Detroit’s ability ever to revive itself economically. Others argue that it is a move precisely for Detroit’s economic revival. Museum officials warn that selling off its precious art would hurt future donor prospects, sending a clear signal that Detroit is a failed urban experiment which cannot sustain serious investments or investors.

At the end of February the city filed a blueprint for what their plan to emerge from bankruptcy might look like, which included the Grand Bargain. The plan largely rested on steep cuts to city workers’ pensions and retiree health benefits as well as decreased payments to bondholders. It called for police, firefighters and those departments’ retirees to take a 10% cut to their current pension payment while all other city employees and retirees to accept pension cuts of 34%. Orr, in an effort to resolve this crisis as fast as possible, said that if unions drop their objections quickly, then police and firefighters would get a 4% pension cut rather than 10%, and city employees would get a 26% cut, not 34%.

“The plan is unfair and unacceptable,” Al Garrett, president of the Michigan branch of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees, responded in a statement. “Retirees cannot survive these drastic cuts.”

By mid-April, city officials were already offering considerably greater concessions. Six more weeks of negotiations yielded a new proposal where the city offered to reduce municipal retirees’ pensions by 4.5%, down from 34%. Retired police officers and firefighters would see no cuts to their pensions. The new plan also includes the elimination of cost of living increases to municipal workers, although retired police and firefighters would continue to receive them, albeit reduced.

It remains unclear how labor unions and the committee representing retired workers will respond to the new offer. No doubt, the city and the DIA want to resolve this issue as quickly and painlessly as possible. But with many groups of creditors—with varying degrees of power—seeking retribution, Detroit’s litigious future, and its politics of art, are anything but over.