Charged with Firing Teachers for Organizing, a Chicago Charter Network Settles

Originally published in the American Prospect on January 12, 2016.

The National Labor Relations Board finalized a settlement agreement this week between Urban Prep Academies, an all-male charter network in Chicago, and more than a dozen Urban Prep teachers who were fired abruptly back in June. The firings came less than a month after a majority of teachers at Urban Prep voted to unionize with the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS). Urban Prep will pay over $250,000 in back wages and severance to 13 fired teachers, and two of the fired teachers were able to return to work on Monday. The others, who already had taken new jobs elsewhere, waived their right to reinstatement and settled for back pay.

Back in June, the union responded to the firings by filing two unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. One alleged that Urban Prep fired three teachers for their union activism; the second charged Urban Prep with failing to bargain with the union over all the teachers’ terminations. Educators, parents, and community members organized protests, urging Urban Prep to rehire the teachers.

Urban Prep’s COO, Evan Lewis, said earlier this summer that “the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them.”

However, the NLRB launched an investigation into the situation, and on November 20, the board issued a complaint, finding that one teacher was fired for union activity and that Urban Prep failed to meet their legal obligations by not bargaining over the teachers’ firings. The NLRB scheduled a hearing for January 13, which has now been cancelled since Urban Prep decided to settle.

“We’re glad we were able to settle the charges rather than having to continue a long legal fight, because if Urban Prep had lost at the hearing they could have appealed,” says Carlos Fernandez, an organizer with ChiACTS. “These kinds of charges can take years to settle, so [resolving this] in just a little over six months is pretty good.”

The teachers at Urban Prep have been meeting regularly with their employer since September to work out the terms of their first contract; the union says they’ve made “significant progress.”There are currently 29 other unionized charter schools in Chicago, and a growing number nationwide.

The total amount that Urban Prep has agreed to pay—$261,346—marks the largest unfair labor practice settlement for charter teachers to date. Back in June, the I Can charter network, based in Ohio, had to rehire four teachers and give seven teachers back pay for firing them during their 2013-2014 union drive. That settlement totaled $69,000.

“It’s unfortunate that these publicly funded schools often react so poorly when their teachers choose a union, and it’s even worse when they’re able to waste so much time and money union busting, something well outside the scope of the work the people of Chicago pay them to do,” says Brian Harris, a special education teacher in Chicago and the president of ChiACTS. “We often hear from charter operator groups that they’re ‘not anti-union but pro-teacher.’ One would assume that the ‘pro-teacher’ part would kick in after a mass illegal firing. Nonetheless, we’re very happy that we can move forward and finally begin to work on what is most important: making Urban Prep a better place to teach and to learn through empowering teachers.”



Lance Armstrong’s Ignoble Last Stand

Originally published in The Washington Monthly on November 21, 2013.

Yesterday, in a last ditch effort to avoid testifying in court to his doping history, Lance Armstrong agreed to pay a $3 million settlement to a Nebraska-based insurance company which had previously given him performance bonuses. In exchange for the money, Armstrong’s sworn written statements will likely be barred from release.

Seems like a lot of money to avoid another testimony, considering he’s already publicly admitted to Oprah Winfrey that he used performance-enhancing drugs. That is, until you realize that if he admits in a court of law that he lied to his sponsors about doping, it will make it much easier to get him to pay monstrous financial penalties. The $3 million is a paltry price to pay in comparison to what Armstrong is really up against.

After Armstrong admitted to doping in January, he’s been busy with a litany of pending lawsuits in state and federal court. And the federal suit, brought on behalf of the U.S. Postal Service, his primary sponsor, is seeking hefty retribution. Under the Federal False Claims Act, a U.S. citizen can pursue major lawsuits against entities accused of defrauding the federal government. A guilty verdict means that the defendant must pay triple the amount of damages—in this case the trial could cost Armstrong up to $120 million, or three times what the U.S. Postal Service spent to sponsor Armstrong’s team over the course of six years.

It’s sure been a crap year for Lance Armstrong. He had to return his Olympic medal,give up his seven Tour de France awards, and lose all his major sponsors. Yet still, it could stand to get much worse.

In 2005, Armstrong testified under oath that he did not use performance-enhancing drugs. And now the trial attorney representing the U.S. government is accusing Armstrong of falsifying documents, evading drug tests, and committing perjury.

It might seem strange to see Armstrong twisting arms to get out of testifying in court something he already admitted so forthrightly on TV. But TV is just TV; it’s not legally binding. One can claim entertainment value, or First Amendment liberties, or any sorts of clever/dubious rationales. (A judge already dismissed a case this past September saying that Armstrong’s lies are protected in his memoirs because they were not advertising other products.)

Besides, Armstrong’s defense centers less on whether or not he used drugs and more on what others perceived as the contractual agreement between them at the time. Insurance companies and the Postal Service paid him millions of dollars to sponsor him and his team, and they argue that their name is defrauded as a result.

Armstrong argues that the Postal Service knew of his doping allegations and thus got exactly what they bargained for. He defends himself by saying that the government took no steps to investigate him despite the evidence, because they were contently reaping the fruits of his fame.

Given that Lance Armstrong realizes he’s going to have to pay some sum of money for all these suits—suddenly $3 million doesn’t seem so bad. One can understand why he’d try and avoid more concerted, direct legal questioning that could be used against him in future lawsuits. And the legal issues differ in these cases than in the content of his Oprah interview. Had he testified today in Austin he’d likely be faced with a barrage of questions about what he represents, what he told his sponsors specifically, did they rely on his representations, why exactly did they give him money, etc.

Some people are watching these events play out with a substantial level ofschadenfreude—the slow, painful and expensive downfall of the duplicitous cyclist represents cold hard justice. Yet this is heartbreaking for many others. I even had a family member quite close to me repeatedly defend Armstrong’s record, and wore his Livestrong bracelet every day for more than a decade until last year, when he finally couldn’t manage to defend him anymore. Lance Armstrong raised near $500 millionfor cancer research, and provided serious inspiration for people all around the world. There’s something ultimately depressing about all this, that snark, scorn and mockery can’t quite assuage.