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Teachers at Harlem Charter School Look to Unionize

By DNAinfo Staff on May 13, 2011 7:57pm

UFT president Michael Mulgrew
UFT president Michael Mulgrew
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DNAinfo/Shayna Jacobs

By Olivia Scheck

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — In a blow to anti-union charter school activists, employees at a Harlem charter school announced Friday that they want to join the teachers' union.

A majority of non-managerial staff at the Opportunity Charter School, on 113th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, elected to join the United Federation of Teachers this week, positioning them to become the 16th city charter school represented by the union, according to UFT spokesman Peter Kadushin.

Unlike staff at other New York City public schools, the vast majority of the city's charter school employees do not belong to unions.

Some charter advocates have touted the system as a managerial advantage that allows them to avoid the restrictions of union contracts.

But for teachers, the lack of union representation leaves them without a medium for collective bargaining and means that they can be fired without the same due process as their union counterparts.

“The teachers at Opportunity Charter School are committed to ensuring that their students receive the best possible education," UFT President Michael Mulgrew said in a statement Friday.

“By forming a union, these teachers have shown that they are committed to having a collective voice in creating a great learning environment for Opportunity’s students. We are proud to welcome them into the UFT.”

If Opportunity's board does not recognize the UFT as the staff members' official bargaining representative within 30 days, the union will attempt to go around them, seeking certification from the state's Public Employment Relations Board, according to the statement.

Opportunity Charter School CEO Leonard Goldberg declined to comment on how union representation might affect the school's management, writing in a email: "We have received communication from the UFT and are reviewing it."

But Todd Ziebarth, vice president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, warned that union involvement can conflict with the efficient management of a charter school.

"There's a significant tension between the flexibility and accountability that are at the heart of the charter model and the one size fits all arrangements negotiated by unions," Ziebarth argued. "A 300-page union contract dictates everything from what time the day starts to how long the lunch break is."

Ziebarth also pointed out that the absence of a union-negotiated contract does not give the school leadership free reign in their dealings with staff members.

"Charter schools still have robust employee policies…even if they don't have collective bargaining," the charter advocate, who estimated that 12 percent of charter schools around the country have union representation, said.

Even if the UFT is authorized to represent the OCS staff, it is not clear how closely their collectively bargained contracts would resemble the citywide agreement that applies to traditional public school employees.

Every contract negotiated between charter schools and the UFT is different, according to Kadushin.

Founded in 2004, OCS serves approximately 400 students from 6th to 12th grade, its website says. 

The school is known for its work with special needs students, who comprise roughly 48 percent of its student body, according to InsideSchools.org.