The soon-to-be president of the National Education Association is visiting a charter school in Alameda, Calif., Friday. But NEA President-elect Lily Eskelsen Garcia isn't holding a press conference at just any charter, it's one with a unionized staff—a rarity in the charter sector—and she's there to highlight its state affiliate's new focus on organizing charter schools.
Alameda Community Learning Center staffers voted to unionize and join the NEA in November last year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The paper reports that the staff said they started organizing after the school board increased their hours while eliminating their salary schedules. They are still bargaining for a contract with school management.
"The point of this press conference is that CTA is really serious about charter school organizing," says Terri Jackson who is a member of the California Teacher Association's—an NEA affiliate—board of directors. She says the CTA has been nibbling around the issue for the last two years and officially listed it as an area of focus in their long-term strategic plan this past January.
"To be frank, it's new and it's also something internally that we had to wrestle with, Jackson said. "I believe when charter schools first came on the scene, a lot of educators thought it was going to be a fad ... and then it took a little longer for [charter school] educators to recognize their working conditions weren't as good."
A couple of high-profile charter schools unionized in 2009, setting off some speculation that there might be a wave of organizing efforts to come. But so far, union memberhsip hasn't taken hold among charter school teachers. In fact, in a 2011 survey, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that only about 12 percent of charters were affiliated with a union.
Depending upon who you ask, there are varying theories as to why unions haven't gotten a firm foothold in the charter market.
Jackson points to resistance from charter management organizations as one reason. "Charter school managers, they really don't want to see educators unionized because ... then you're talking about due process, and a contract with certain rights in it, without all of that they can call the working conditions, they can determine the hours," she said.
But others say that the reason charter school teachers aren't organizing might be because they simply don't see the need to.
"Charter schools are proving that you don't have to be part of a collective union to have job security," says NAPCS President and CEO Nina Rees. "A lot of these schools are providing what makes for a good workplace. The fact that we haven't had a lot of situations that teachers are saying we need unions to back us and protect us is a healthy sign."