From a county jail to construction academy, charter workers are seeking union representation

SEEKING A LARGER VOICE IN THEIR WORKPLACES, career stability and the power to better serve their students, teachers and counselors at three charter schools recently voted AFT as their union, and will have the benefit of belonging to well-established and effective AFT local unions.

>>Fourteen teachers at the Architecture, Construction and Engineering Charter High School in Camarillo “went union” in March because, according to English teacher Kayce Betzel, “We believed in our school’s mission and wanted a voice.”

Now in its third year of operation, the school helps students explore construction-related careers through project-based learning and prepares them for college, apprenticeship and professional employment.

“We wanted to stay long-term and wanted workplace stability. In a charter school, there are no real rules, job security… no tenure. We had no representation, no salary schedule. We wanted to retain veteran teachers and attract new ones.” 

— Kayce Betzel, English teacher, Architecture, Construction and Engineering Charter High School

“We wanted to stay long-term and wanted workplace stability. In a charter school, there are no real rules, job security… no tenure. We had no representation, no salary schedule. We wanted to retain veteran teachers and attract new ones,” Betzel explains. Many of the teachers had taught in districts where they had a union. They wanted to bridge a growing lack of communication between administration and staff and saw the union as the best way to achieve this.

The charter teachers were organized by Oxnard Federation of Teachers and School Employees, AFT Local 1273 and already believe they have a larger voice at work, more unity, are more equal partners with administration and can better serve the best interests of their students.

>>At Five Keys Charter School in the Los Angeles County Jail, where inmates can earn a high school diploma or GED, more than 20 teachers will benefit from union representation and having a contract. The charter opened in August as a satellite campus of Five Keys in San Francisco County Jail where educators have a union and contract protections through United Educators of San Francisco.

History teacher Brendan Deiz is union steward for the new Los Angeles unit of United Educators. He came to Five Keys after working at a non-union charter school where, he says, the staff lacked a say. At the Los Angeles Five Keys, the staff wanted less secrecy, more transparent communication from administration and input into workplace decisions.

Deiz is enthusiastic about taking on his union role. “Working at a jail is very stressful. It is important that we support one another because we have to deal with so much. The union enables us to stand up for each other and ensure our working environment is healthy. It empowers us to do the best we can for our students.”

In their first contract negotiations, the Los Angeles Five Keys teachers gained summer breaks, more transparency in administration decisions and a mandatory two-week notification before teaching assignments change.

With a union, Deiz says, “When we bring up things, administration works with us.”

>>About 60 teachers and counselors at Ivy Academia Entrepreneurial Charter Schools organized into United Teachers Los Angeles. Ivy stresses academics and entrepreneurial skills at its three K-12 campuses in Woodland Hills.

The educators unionized for job security and because they were tired of “so many top-down decisions forced on teachers,” said Kelly Mancuso, an Ivy middle school teacher. “We need to focus on our students and be able to advocate for them without fearing for our jobs.”

Teachers were hired “at-will” and could be fired for no reason. They had no say when the administration imposed unpaid non-teaching duties. And after Proposition 30 passed, administration failed to restore imposed furlough days.

In negotiating their first contract, the educators are fighting for just cause and due process, job security, a reasonable probationary period, a fair professional development and evaluation process, limits on unpaid duties and the ability to speak for their students.

UTLA now represents more than 900 educators at independent charter schools in the Los Angeles area.

— By Mindy Pines, CFT Reporter