The BASIS Tucson North charter in Oro Valley voted to unionize this past Wednesday night. By a 2 to 1 margin, teachers voted to found a local union chapter of the Arizona Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. This charter is now the first in Arizona to have staff join a union, an affiliate of the nation’s second-largest teacher labor union, the American Federation of Teachers.
Say it is not so! Teachers at BASIS felt the need to form a union to ensure more money for hiring and retaining teachers. What has the world come to when we can’t rely on businesses to do the right thing and take care of their employees without some pesky union getting in the way?
Trudi Connolly, a member of the union organizing committee explained the rationale for unionizing.
“The union was needed because we were losing teachers and the essence of the school’s culture at an unbelievable rate. We want to protect the aspirations we’ve always had for our school. Under current circumstances, we can’t retain enough teachers to educate our students, let alone provide them with the dept of intellectual experience and support they deserve. Teachers, indeed like all kinds of workers all over the country, are coming together to make sure they have a real voice in what the future of our workplaces looks like. In our case, we want our workplace to be one where teachers thrive and students get the education they deserve.”
Teachers and administrators of public school districts across the state share this sentiment. But, Arizona is a “right to work” state. This means an employer is prohibited from denying a person the opportunity to be hired or retained because they are not a member of a labor organization.
The Arizona Education Association, (and its local district chapters), represents 20,000 members.
The AEA can lobby for employees at the Legislature. They can also represent them in negotiation efforts such as “meet and confer”, a board-adopted policy to ensure both sides negotiate in good faith in a sincere effort to be heard and reach a consensus. They can also represent employees in “interest-based bargaining”, enabling negotiators to act more like joint problem-solvers. The AEA may not, however, engage in “collective bargaining” for the employees. And, district employees are prevented from going on strike and if they do, they can be fired and replaced.
For further clarification, I reached out to a lawyer friend of mine who has extensive Arizona education policy experience. He said Arizona does not allow for collective bargaining but that doesn’t mean employees can’t unionize. It does, however, mean they can’t be required to join the union as a condition of employment (the “right to work” part). Just because the employer is not obligated to engage in collective bargaining, doesn’t mean some representation and organizing can’t occur.
Most school districts “meet and confer” with their employees.
Although school districts aren’t obligated to “meet and confer” with their employees, many do. Partly because some Boards require it and because there is some connection between being elected by the public and being responsive to the staff. That same dynamic would likely not be present in a charter like BASIS. In fact, according to PublicCharters.org, Arizona law provides that all charter schools are their own legal entity and thus are not required to abide by any outside agreements. It will be interesting then, to see what becomes of this new union’s efforts to bargain on behalf of its members at the BASIS school.
Did unions create charters?
I thought it ironic that unions were gaining a foothold in charter schools since a common narrative was that unions played a part in creating charters, to begin with. Additional research, however, proved this narrative suspect. Rachel Cohen, in DemocracyJournal.org, wrote in 2017 that legendary AFT president Albert Shanker played a much smaller role in creating the charter concept than he has been credited with. Rather, she claims,
“At its outset, the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the ‘technocratic centrists’: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC members looking for Third Way solutions that couldn’t be labeled big-government liberalism.”
She goes on to say,
“The mythological origin story of charter schools—the Shanker myth—has served an important role in keeping the charter coalition together. The idea that charters come from unions lends a certain weight-of-history inevitability to school reform. It suggests that everyone has agreed that change must come, and the only question is from who, and what it’ll look like in the end.”
Cohen posited that the “Shanker tale” may have “helped undermine progressive school choice advocates, who find themselves chasing a vision that has never played a major role in the inner circles of school reform”. Most charters she writes,
“Are more segregated than traditional public schools, are non-union, and when charter educators do mount union campaigns, they almost always face tremendous opposition. If the promise of unionized, integrated, teacher-centered charters has proven devilishly difficult to fulfill, it may be, in part, because the movement’s leaders never took it very seriously to begin with.”
A movement is afoot.
That was in 2017 and now, approximately 12% of U.S. charter schools have unionized. BASIS union organizer Duncan Hasman believes a movement is underway saying “A win in Arizona is a signifier that charter school teachers are ready to start making their voices heard across the nation”. A union press release stated, they will work towards, “additional accountability, administrative transparency, and more resources and time to effectively identify and address student needs”.
I reached out to AFT prior to publishing this article and they asked Duncan to get in touch with me. He did and told me he has (along with the organizing committee) been working on unionizing for a couple of years. The decision to organize wasn’t due to a “straw that broke the camel’s back”, but rather, resulted from recognition of a structural problem. There just wasn’t a mechanism for teacher considerations or recommendations to be heard. And, there wasn’t any strength in individual negotiation.
I asked Duncan how Arizona’s “right to work” law and prohibition against collective bargaining affected the union’s ability to organize and their bargaining efforts. He said they did have to reassure teachers that organizing and forming a union was still possible despite state laws. The OC addressed their concerns and now their approach, informed by data and an understanding of how the system works, will amplify teachers’ voices and give strength to power.
When I asked him if he worries about what the AZ Legislature will do to try to negate this victory, he said that, “As an organizer, you know what you have control over and you know what you don’t. Our group of teachers has control over what they say and do, but we can’t control the Legislature”.
Time will tell how successful their efforts will be in a state whose Legislature is way more business-friendly than teacher-friendly, regardless of the type of school. BASIS Eighth-grade algebra teacher Justine Sleator explained her hopes for the effort,
“Our union will allow us to reprioritize the needs of our students. We will be able to protect new teachers from burnout and retain high-quality educators, as BASIS has been known for.”
That need is universal, especially in this time of ever-increasing pressures placed on our public schools and educators. Really, why would anyone want to be a teacher these days with our lawmakers constantly looking for ways to make their jobs even more demanding? The bottom line for Duncan Hasman is that teachers at his school “needed a voice”. There was no structural way for teachers to come together and share their experiences and needs with either management or the community they serve.
Ultimately, privatization is not about “giving power to the people”. Rather, it is about giving power to “The Man” (business). Maybe this win at BASIS will act as a small crack in the privatization movement. At the very least, it will likely show that although BASIS has a reputation for student achievement, it comes at a cost. It will be interesting to see how that bill is paid.