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A Years-Long Struggle To Unionize A Charter Network Takes To The Streets

Adults in red clothing hold signs that say "Stand with educators for a better alliance." They are walking down a sidewalk.
Teachers at several Alliance charter schools committed to a one-day strike to press management to recognize a teachers' union affiliated with United Teachers Los Angeles.
(Kyle Stokes
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Educators from four Los Angeles charter schools walked off the job Thursday for a one-day strike, hoping to force Alliance College-Ready Public Schools — the city’s largest charter school chain — to recognize their attempts to form a teachers union.

Supporters picketed at their four campuses where teachers, counselors and school psychologists in the group Alliance Educators United are attempting to organize: at the Gertz-Merkin campus in Pico-Union, Leichtman-Levin in Atwater Village, Morgan McKinzie in Boyle Heights and Burton Tech in South L.A.

The four schools combined educate more than 2,400 students. At Gertz-Merkin, students did report to campus, but were being supervised by non-teaching staff.

“We kinda were left with no choice,” explained Brittany Cliffe, a Gertz-Merkin science teacher and bargaining representative for the unionizing group. “If we are serious about bringing [Alliance administrators] to the bargaining table, then we needed to get their attention in a larger way, and that’s ultimately why we’re here.”

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Thursday’s one-day strike is the latest in a long-running saga between the Alliance network — which operates more than two-dozen schools in South and East L.A. — and United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that the charter educators hope to join.

At almost every turn, the dispute has highlighted the difficulties unions can face in establishing a foothold in charter schools.

Charters are publicly funded schools run by nonprofits, not school districts — and unlike in district-run schools, charter school teachers rarely belong to unions: only one out of every 10 charter schools in the U.S. has a unionized teaching force.

Since 2015, Alliance teachers have been attempting to organize their own chapter with UTLA, which represents more than 30,000 school staff in the region — including teachers at traditional L.A. Unified School District campuses.

Alliance administrators have argued against the union drive from the beginning. In 2015, an L.A. Superior Court judge admonished Alliance administrators for blocking union organizers from campus and redirecting UTLA emails to teachers’ spam folders. A 2017 state audit found Alliance spent almost $1 million fighting the union drive — all from private contributions.

An Organizing Challenge

UTLA officials claim that teacher turnover at Alliance charter schools is high, a factor that has fueled organizers’ desire to unionize. This also poses an organizing challenge: every new educator who arrives must sign a new union authorization card.

“We want teachers to stay at this school because we know more experienced teachers, more experienced educators, are better for students,” Cliffe said.

In 2018, pro-union teachers decided that instead of unionizing the entire network of 23 Alliance campuses, they would unionize the schools one by one. Their strategy stemmed from a state labor board ruling that affirmed an argument Alliance management made at the time: that each charter school in the network was autonomous from the Alliance central office.

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In May 2020, the California Public Employment Relations Board ruled in the union’s favor: UTLA did represent employees at five Alliance schools (one, Middle Academy 5, has since closed), a majority of the board ruled, which could’ve cleared the way for contract talks to begin.

But where Alliance administrators once argued its campuses were autonomous, they now contend that each school in the network is largely dependent on their central office. That would mean that if teachers wanted to unionize, they would have to organize across all two-dozen campuses, rather than individual campuses.

The charter network is now appealing the labor board’s ruling to the courts — and in the meantime, has not met to open contract talks with Alliance Educators United.

“For two years, UTLA has known that Alliance intends to appeal to the California State of Appeals regarding the ruling that UTLA can bargain contracts at individual Alliance schools,” said Xavier Vargas, Alliance’s vice president of strategic initiatives and communication, in an email to LAist. “[UTLA continues] to use our legal right to appeal as an organizing tool to strike at four Alliance schools."

Vargas added that negotiating and administering multiple union contacts with UTLA "would create additional bureaucracy and burden on Alliance schools.”

In February, the Public Employee Relations Board said Alliance management’s refusal to bargain with the educators violated state labor law.

What questions do you have about K-12 education in Southern California?
Kyle Stokes reports on the public education system — and the societal forces, parental choices and political decisions that determine which students get access to a “good” school (and how we define a “good school”).