August 31, 2011
Disgruntled teachers at Opportunity Charter School won their bid to unionize last week after a state agency approved the United Federation of Teachers to represent them.
A ruling by the Public Employment Relations Board dated Aug. 26 officially certified the union to serve as “exclusive negotiating agent” for Opportunity’s teachers, paving the way for the UFT to assume all collective bargaining rights on behalf of its employees.
With the ruling, the UFT now represents 13 New York City charter schools.
The decision comes nearly four months after teachers held a secret “card check,” during which a majority of teachers signed authorization cards stating that they wished to be represented by a union. Administrators refused to recognize the results within 30 days, setting up the official hearing process through PERB, which began in June.
In reviewing the union vote cards, PERB threw out nearly a third of votes that belonged to teachers who were no longer employed at Opportunity, according to a UFT official. That includes more than a dozen teachers who were abruptly fired at the end of the school year.
The firings led teachers and UFT organizers to accuse school CEO Leonard Goldberg of retaliating against and intimidating teachers who were loyal to the union, a charge that has been officially filed by UFT lawyers through PERB. Those charges have not been heard yet, the official said.
Through a lawyer, Goldberg has denied that the firings were related to the teachers’ union activities. Both Goldberg and his lawyer declined to comment on the PERB decision.
In explaining their initial decision to unionize, Opportunity teachers said they felt that the school’s founding philosophy had changed and isolated their voices from school policy decisions.
“The school has changed dramatically since I started. Now I feel like I work for a company, not a school,” Jennifer Mitchell told GothamSchools in July. Mitchell, one of the school’s longest-tenured teachers, was among the founding members on the union organizing committee.
Opportunity Charter School has a short but troubled history. Founded by Goldberg in 2004 on a unique mission to serve high rates of special education students and students with learning disabilities, the school struggled on performance reviews, prompting the DOE to renew its charter only on a shorted term. An investigation last year found aides physically abused students in some instances of behavioral intervention.
The decision means that UFT will now handle all negotiations as part of a collective bargaining agreement that will decide how employees are hired and fired, how much they are paid and how long they work. In exchange, Opportunity’s teachers would become dues-paying union members.