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Why Do Some Charter School Teachers Try to Unionize?

A study by Huriya Jabbar, Jesse Chanin, Jamie Haynes, and Sara Slaughter explores the motivations of teachers in Detroit and New Orleans who tried to unionize their charter schools.

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Why Do Some Charter School Teachers Try to Unionize?

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There has been little research done about how and why teachers have tried to organize unions at charter schools. In this study, we interviewed 21 charter-school teachers in New Orleans and Detroit who attempted, successfully or unsuccessfully, to organize fellow educators within their schools, as well as one charter-school teacher who opposed unionization efforts. We explored why teachers pushed for a union and how they described the school’s response to their efforts.

Our main findings are:

  • The most common motivation for organizing was improving teacher retention and job security. Lack of pay transparency and equity (e.g. men and women being paid unequally), unsustainable workloads, teacher burnout and arbitrary firings were also major underlying concerns.
  • Teachers also sought to improve the supports provided to vulnerable students and increase teacher leadership.
  • The teachers we interviewed reported shock at the severity of school administrators’ response to unionization efforts. Many alleged that administrators fired teachers who attempted to unionize or accused them of destroying the school “family.”
  • High teacher turnover and fear of being fired were major challenges that stymied attempts at union organizing.
  • There were notable differences between Detroit, where many charters are for-profit, and New Orleans, where they are all non-profit. Detroit teachers saw low salary as a major issue and complained that they were lacking basic resources like textbooks. Teachers in New Orleans did not emphasize salary levels as a major issue but were concerned about pay transparency.

This study explores how some teachers in charter schools are re-framing arguments made in favor of unions by putting greater emphasis on how unions will help not only teachers, but also students, especially vulnerable populations such as English language learners and students with disabilities. These teachers argue that unions are not antithetical to the mission of charters, but in fact would strengthen charter schools by increasing stability and teacher retention. As more charter schools open in the U.S., understanding why some teachers want unions is crucial, as the role of unions has implications for the long-term future of charter schools and the career trajectories of teachers who teach in those schools.