By Phillip Bailey
Last February teachers, counselors and social workers at Cesar Chavez Academy (CCA), voted to join a union by an overwhelming margin. The union victory came just weeks after Governor Snyder signed “right-to-work” legislation – a major setback for unions in Michigan. CCA, Detroit’s largest charter school with four campuses that together serves about 2,000 K-12 students, became the city’s first unionized charter school. School employees said they were relieved and hopeful for a fair collective-bargaining-agreement after a hard-fought campaign to be legally recognized by administrators as bargaining partners.
But teachers and staff members said The Leona Group, the for-profit education company that operates CCA under a charter from Saginaw Valley State University, has not bargained in good faith as required by law. The Michigan Alliance of Charter School Teachers & Staff has filed charges against the Leona Group alleging over two dozen violations of the National Labor Relations Act. Talks on a contract between the union and the Leona Group continue unresolved.
In May, CCA changed their health care policy without notifying or bargaining with the union as required by labor law. In October, school administrators told social worker Lynne Santoscoy her position at CCA Middle School was eliminated due to budget cuts resulting from drops in student enrollment. Santoscoy, who had been publicly active in the effort to join the union, said she felt singled out for punitive dismissal because of her union activity. Other social workers hours were cut as well, but only Santoscoy’s position was eliminated.
The Michigan Alliance of Charter School Teachers & Staff alleges that The Leona Group made the staff changes unilaterally, without bargaining or even notifying the union. Staffing levels are a mandatory subject of bargaining under labor law, and union officials said CCA administrators had agreed to provide prior notification of any plans to reduce staff. Leona refused to discuss the issue at bargaining sessions. The union filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board asserting Santoscoy’s firing was illegal retaliation and requesting her reinstatement.
Over two thousand people signed an online petition in November, demanding that The Leona Group bargain staff issues with the union. Union members and supporters said they intended to present the petition to the CCA Board at its November meeting and pressure The Leona Group to postpone recent staff cuts and hour reductions until a collective bargaining agreement could be reached. But there was a problem: the CCA Board did not meet that month. The meeting was canceled after only two out of five Board members necessary for a quorum showed up. The previous meeting in October had also been canceled. Teachers said the school is currently operating on an unapproved budget partly because of repeated Board meeting cancellations.
Teachers and staff members were undeterred. They said they hoped the Board, which oversees the school administration, would hear their concerns at the next scheduled Board meeting on December 12. When that day came, the Board announced it would not meet for a third straight scheduled meeting. Union members and supporters said they viewed the cancellation as a sign of disrespect, adding insult to injury.
Dozens of teachers, parents and community allies braved sub-zero temperatures to hold a candlelight picket outside Cesar Chavez Middle School. Supporters held signs reading, “When You Silence our Teachers, You Silence our Kids. They are our Future.” The crowd chanted, “Si Say Puede,” the slogan of the United Farmworkers Union lead by Cesar Chavez. Tashaune Harden, 8th grade science teacher at CCA for twelve years and union bargaining chair explained the reason for the protest: “We need to let the board know that we are here to dialogue and they are not.”
Finally, on January 9 the CCA Board showed up to its own meeting at CCA Middle School for the first time in four months. Board Vice President Lawrence Garcia began the meeting with a statement on behalf of the Board. Garcia said the CCA Board would not involve itself in the collective bargaining process.
Nonetheless, union members and supporters presented their petition to the Board. CCA High School teacher Rose Crowley told the Board that the school’s firing of Santoscoy and reductions in staff hours among social workers showed, “a complete lack of understanding of what our students need.” Crowley pointedly asked the Board members, “is this the kind of school we want to be?” On behalf of the two thousand petition signers she said, “We are respectively suggesting that The Leona Group begins bargaining with the union on reduction of staff.”
CCA Board President Frederick Pacheco did not respond to Critical Moment’s inquiries on unfair labor practices. Board President Lawrence Garcia said he had “no comment.”