Summer 2011 Issue
June 29, 2011

Charter teachers fight for rights

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United

A group of committed Buffalo teachers are hanging tough against a national, for-profit, Michigan-based charter school corporation that is trying to deny them a voice on the job.

The teachers from the Buffalo United Charter School recently rallied with other NYSUT members at the Buffalo courthouse in late June, supporting their colleagues and protesting the employer's continued efforts to delay and deny their union rights.

Their employer, the National Heritage Academies (NHA), is an education management organization and the union has charged the company with union busting, discrimination and harassment.

At a recent hearing about the abuse, new evidence surfaced. The director of the school had instructed a dean to make sure that Barbara Coogan, the local union president, received "unsatisfactory" evaluations, despite the fact the dean wanted to give her a "satisfactory." Coogan had received good evaluations until she led the drive to unionize; since then, she has faced daily scrutiny, bad evaluations and termination attempts. In 2010, after many union charges, the state's Public Employment Relations Board ordered the NHA to keep her employed.

The union has offered to drop all litigation in lieu of recognizing the union, an apology to all staff and a guarantee of good will in the future.

"Respect and dignity hang in the balance," said Mike Deely, a NYSUT labor relations specialist assisting the BUCS workers.

Educators at the K-8 charter school have been on the front lines of the fight for charter teachers to organize since 2009. They have held rallies and press conferences and made other efforts to share their story with the community and parents.

Two years ago, an overwhelming majority of BUCS teachers signed union authorization cards to affiliate with NYSUT.

The full PERB board ruled in February 2011 that the employer should recognize the teachers as public employees and verify their show of interest in the union.

NYSUT attorneys continue their multi-year battle to defend the teachers and secure them a voice on the job. The company is suing PERB, saying the teachers are not covered by state law — even though the school is a public charter and is governed by the 1998 state law that says charter staff are public employees.

"Teachers need a voice in the school, and the union is the only way to get that," said BUCS Education Association president Barbara Coogan. "No one told us to form a union; frankly, forming a union was the only way to make our voice heard in order to do the job we want to support and help students succeed."

By some estimates, the NHA makes a per-year profit of $6,000 per student in the 600-student school. Despite the company's efforts, the educators have voted four separate times to show their continued support for the union.

"These courageous educators deserve a voice on the job," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "It's time for their employer to stop the legal stalling and listen to the teachers' voices. They need to be heard on issues educators care about — from school safety and discipline, to curriculum and professional development, as well as salaries and benefits."