Back to School for Labor

Courtesy of

Olney High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Most people wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to attend a three-hour meeting after work hours. But on May 29, the board meeting of ASPIRA of Pennsylvania, a non-profit that runs four charters schools in Philadelphia, was packed with teachers, students, and other staff members. Holding signs that read “Let’s Work Together,” a group of 30 from the Olney Charter High School quietly sat through the last board meeting of the academic year, waiting to hear if ASPIRA would continue to resist their efforts to unionize. 

The public-comment period didn’t begin until 9:00 p.m., with a strict two-minute limit for every speaker. Olney staffers got around the rule. Instead of rushing through their own remarks, each speaker read a few paragraphs from a co-authored statement. Olney employees emphasized their desire to work with the administration and asked ASPIRA to stop fighting their unionization drive. The speech’s final line: “We look forward to working with you.” Members of ASPIRA’s board sat, looked down at the table or shuffled papers, and avoided eye-contact with the teachers.

Asked when ASPIRA would negotiate, Board Chair Aracely Rosales mumbled: “At this point we are not entering discussions … we will have our discussions, maybe at the next board meeting.” Olney workers have heard that before: Rosales said roughly the same thingat the last meeting on March 27. Whenever union supporters call board members to discuss the effort to organize, they are told to come to the next board meeting, where they are then denied a place on the schedule and relegated to the public-comment portion. 

That’s just one of numerous delaying tactics utilized by ASPIRA’s management since March, when a small group of Olney staff approached Principal Jose Lebron, told him they were forming a union, and asked for a neutrality agreement to ensure management would not interfere in the process. He refused to discuss the matter. “There will be scars from this,” he warned. “Are you ready to play hard ball?” (Phone calls to the Olney Charter High School, ASPIRA’s Philadelphia headquarters, and Rosales’s offices were not returned.) These threats resonate with a staff that, as is the case at most charter schools, are kept on 10-month contracts that require the administration to ask them back every year.

Jake Blumgart

Teachers and staff from Olney high school at ASPIRA's last board meeting of the year

In many ways, the organizing effort among ASPIRA employees and the resistance of the company resemble any other union battle in a country with weak labor protections. But it is relatively new for the teaching profession—one of the last major bastions of union power in the United States. In most states across the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast, public-school teachers have long been unionized. But over the last 15 years, troubled inner-city school districts have seen an explosive growth of privately-operated, publicly funded charter schools, which have drained away union memberships. A few states, like Maryland, cover such employees under larger district collective-bargaining agreements. But charter proponents fiercely oppose such policies, arguing that these sweeping contracts are antithetical to the very concept of charter schools. According to conservative education policy expert Chester Finn: “The single most important form of freedom for charter schools is to hire and fire employees as they like and pay them as they see fit.”

But for workers, this flexibility often means instability and uncertainty. Most charter schools only employ their teachers and other staff at-will contracts that must be renewed at the end of every school year. Without a union, teachers can legally be fired for any reason and have no assurances that their grievances will be heard. Halley Potter and Richard D. Kahlenberg, two scholars at the Century Foundation who are writing a book about teacher voice in charter schools, have found that even in non-union charters that pride themselves on teacher input, teachers do not feel there is enough transparency around pay increases, promotions, and other administrative decisions. This results in high turnover rates; teachers feel burnt out and quit, which in turn keeps wages and benefits low. Because of this, charter teachers tend to be much younger and less experienced than their public school counterparts, according to a 2012 National Conference of State Legislatures report

Proponents of charter schools say this is just part of the tradeoff. “In this day and age no person stays in a job for more than a few years,” says Nina Rees, president and CEO of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools (NAPCS), which has no official position on unionization but opposes laws that would include charter schools in large public-school collective-bargaining agreements. “In the private sector these things happen. Now, in teaching it would be great if we could keep teachers in the system for much longer, but the way to do that is by offering differentiated pay and a career ladder [not broad unionization laws].”

Pennsylvania has no law including teachers and staff at charter schools in public-school bargaining units. Of Philadelphia’s 84 charter schools, only a fourth are controlled by organizations that manage more than one location and none of these management organizations have expressed interest in unionizing. This means that the American Federation of Teachers, which began to organize Philly charters in 2007, must wage separate campaigns at each school. Of the four charter schools ASPIRA runs in the city, only Olney is attempting to unionize. 


Like many charter-school operators, ASPIRA espouses a progressive agenda, describing itself as a “community-based organization whose mission is to empower Puerto Ricans and other Latinos through advocacy and the education and leadership development of its youth.” The organization sprung from an effort by Puerto Rican activists in New York City during the 1960s who wanted to improve social and educational services for their community. Initially, ASPIRA supported groups within schools to strengthen student influence and support educational development, but today has grown to encompass a range of programs—from summer camps to charter schools. Some teachers think that union representation would fit neatly into ASPIRA’s wider culture and goals.

“I came to ASPIRA because of the social-justice aspect,” says Sarah Apt, a second-year teacher who teaches English as a second language (ESL). “I wanted to be at a school where ESL was valued, where my students were valued. The union is a tool for that. What we need to make that happen in our school is to have the voice and leverage to do it.”

Teachers and staff at Olney have expressed frustration with the administration’s opaque decision-making process and failure to communicate. They provided one anecdote after another. During the school’s first year, a “House” system was in place that allowed students to share many of the same teachers, who could then work together to address academic and behavioral issues. Students also got to know their cohort of teachers better. The program seemed to work especially well for incoming freshman. But the administration eliminated the system during the second year, without consulting or warning the teachers. Without notice, the library was dismantled before the start of the school’s second year. The librarian returned from summer break to find the carpeting torn up and the books dispersed throughout the school. Administrators approved a proposal for a Spanish literacy class for English language learners, but it never appeared on the roster. 

“I think we know about the classroom more than [administrators and board members] do and they know about other things more than we do,” says Ellie Fingerman, a 12th grade social studies teacher who has taught at Olney for four years. “We want to have an equal voice alongside the administration and the school board. When we win there will be no limit to how strong our school can be.”


Three weeks after the campaign at Olney went public, a group of more than twenty staff members went to Lebron's office to deliver a petition for union recognition signed by 65 percent of staff. He not only refused to accept it, but chased them down the hallway to give it back. In some states, like neighboring New York, demonstrating majority support among the staff would be enough to win union recognition. But in Pennsylvania, a school board can challenge the result of a union vote and require another election overseen by the federal National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The process can last months—even longer if an employer decides to draw it out by, for instance, disputing which types of employees can be included in the bargaining unit. The longer the election process, studies have shown, the more likely management will resort to tactics like unlawful firings to repress the union. 

This is precisely what has happened with Olney. Throughout the past year, administrators have held closed-door, one-on-one meetings grilling teachers and staff about which side they will support and warning of possible layoffs and benefit cuts if the staff organizes. Administrators began writing up union supporters for being a couple of minutes late to meetings, where previously such minor infractions went unpunished. Olney staff fought back by having a majority of the staff sign a petition condemning the practice and wearing stickers to school reading “Due Process Helps Staff, Help Students.” In April, anti-union literature began appearing in people’s mailboxes. “No union can guarantee job security,” one letter signed by Lebron reads. “All you have to do is look in the newspaper to see the number of businesses that are laying people off or shutting down completely. Many of these businesses are unionized, but the union cannot and did not protect the jobs of those people … The best job security is being a good employee that an employer cannot do without.” 

On April 5, the Philadelphia Alliance of Charter School Employees, the AFT local that Olney is organizing under, filed the first of two unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. When the NLRB contacted ASPIRA to investigate, the organization challenged the federal board’s jurisdiction in the matter, claiming they should be governed by Pennsylvania’s Labor Relations Board (PLRB). But the PLRB announced in a May 20 letter regarding a different school that it would cede jurisdiction over charter cases to its federal counterpart. While these legalities are being sorted out, the administration continues to stonewall. The teachers still want a neutrality agreement because they do not believe a fair election can be carried out under current circumstances. 

 “It’s a throwback to a time when teachers should be seen and not heard,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Some charter operators don’t care whether there is huge attrition, don’t recognize that the more experience teachers have the better they are at teaching. They do not want teachers to have a voice.”

ASPIRA’s anti-union tactics are not the exception. Earlier this year, AFT retreated from Philadelphia’s Multicultural Academy, where the administration fiercely fought the union for years after the employees voted to organize in 2011. At another Philly school in 2012, a union supporter was suddenly fired during an organizing drive (but was re-hired after a majority of the staff called for her reinstatement). “A lot of people didn’t want to participate anymore, didn’t even want to talk about it. Everybody was scared to death,” said a staff member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. After the organizing effort failed and issues including low pay, lengthy hours, and limited staff input continued unaddressed, many teachers quit.

This year has seen union successes too. New Media Technology won 80 or 90 percent of the vote to unionize. The administration pushed back at first, but contract negotiations are set to begin this summer, making it the fifth unionized charter school in the city. The Khepera Charter School has been unionized for four years. According to Kim Johnson, president of the Philadelphia charter local and a third grade teacher, high turnover among the administration, which resulted in a turbulent work environment, motivated teachers and staff to organize. The staff felt insecure and vulnerable, uncertain of the temperamental and policy shifts brought on by every fresh wave of administrators. Today, Johnson says administrators consistently request teacher input and the principal regularly meets with a union committee to discuss matters both administrative and educational.

A group of teachers and community members rallies outside ASPIRA's headquarters

But such positive experiences do not seem to have influenced ASPIRA’s thinking. On June 17, a group of 50 Olney staffers and community activists marched into ASPIRA’s Philadelphia offices, where the board meeting was held a few weeks earlier, and asked to meet with CEO Alfredo Calderon. Calderon held several staff meetings at Olney earlier in the year to advertise his “open door policy” and encouraged teachers to bring their troubles to him instead of union organizers. The protestors chanted and sang in the front offices. Calderon refused to leave his office, so the activists held a meeting on the sidewalk in front of the building where they presented an “End of the Year Evaluation for ASPIRA” to empty chairs adorned with nametags for Calderon and Rosales, while a local media group filmed the action. An hour after they left, the teachers received word that ASPIRA was willing to meet. 

Despite this victory, it is still unclear which Olney teachers will be rehired for next school year. “Everyone, except special cases that are pending, got their contracts renewed for next year,” board members announced at the last board meeting. Such assurances are cold comfort. “People in the administration have talked about how we need to fairly discuss and figure things out,” says Apt. “But it’s not a true dialogue when someone has your job in their hands.”

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