An election victory, a court battle, and teachers’ fear and charges of retaliation — these are some of the elements of the effort of teachers at Ubah Medical Academy to get union representation.
While long and hard hours of work are common to all schoolteachers, some educators at charter schools have said they have little job security and no strong voice on issues relating to working conditions.
Unlike unionized public school teachers, teachers at charter schools have a one-year contract and don’t have much job protection. They’re signed “at-will,” which means they can be fired at any time without notice or clear reasons to justify their dismissal.
A physical and health education teacher, Kehine Oyederu, at Ubah Medical Academy — a 9-12 Hopkins charter school — said his salary was recently cut drastically.
“They cut my salary, and I still work full hours,” Oyederu said. “You can cut working hours if there is any need for structuring, but you can’t just cut salary.” If his school had been unionized, his salary wouldn’t have been reduced, he added.
Open since 2004, Ubah Medical Academy, like the rest of the 149 charter schools in Minnesota, has never had a union. This is because the majority of every charter school board is composed of teachers, said Eugene Piccolo, executive director for The Minnesota Association of Charter Schools. Such a situation wouldn’t work, Piccolo explained because “If teachers were to unionize, it’d be unionizing among themselves to negotiate with themselves.”
That’s not necessarily true, according to teachers at Ubah Medical Academy, who voted in May in favor of a union. The school administration challenged the vote, saying some teachers on the Board of Directors weren’t given a chance to vote, said Bridget Foster, an organizer at Education Minnesota.
“I’m not against unionization,” Ubah Medical Academy director Musa Farah told the TC Daily Planet. “We welcome anything that is good for the school.”
Before the union vote, the Ubah school administration tried to have teacher/school board members included as eligible voters. The Minnesota Board of Mediation Services said that was not allowed.
Then the eligible teachers voted for union representation. According to Foster, Ubah Medical Academy’s administration appealed the vote, thereby holding up any union representation until the Minnesota Court of Appeals decides the case.
“Currently, the union issue at Ubah is tied up in the Minnesota Court of Appeals where we are waiting for a date for oral arguments to be heard,” Foster said.
Teacher says she was fired due to union involvement
Even the attempt to unionize brought consequences for some teachers. The TC Daily Planet spoke to several teachers at Ubah Medical Academy, some of whom said they were afraid to speak on the record for fear of retaliation. Sonja Johnson, a former English teacher at Ubah Medical Academy, however, agreed to speak on the issue publicly.
Johnson said she was fired in May because she was one of the teachers who wanted to form a union, even though it is illegal under federal law for employers to fire employees who engage in union activities. She added that she believes a teacher union is good for both teachers and students.
Johnson, who taught at the school since 2007, said she helped to organize a union because, “there seemed to be a lack of checks and balances at the school, and I thought that it was the only way to ensure a system of accountability that would engage outside stakeholders to review the school’s leadership. Teachers work most efficiently when administration and teachers work collaboratively. I thought forming a union was our only recourse.”
In addition to retaliation, Johnson said she experienced inequality and harassment from Ubah Medical Academy administrators over the years she taught there.
“Since non-unionized charter school teachers generally don’t have the job protections of unionized teachers, they would at least be more vulnerable to, if not more likely to see, these type of incidents with administrators,” said Doug Dooher, Public Affairs Specialist Education Minnesota.
The director of Ubah Medical Academy, Muse Farah, declined to comment on the reason Johnson’s contract was not renewed for this school year, saying he didn’t want to discuss teachers’ performance without their presence.
A letter that Farah sent to Johnson on May 26 was provided to the Daily Planet by Johnson. The letter reads, in part: “You will not be offered a teaching contract for the 2011-2012 school year. This decision comes as a result of your insufficient improvement in the critical performance areas of classroom preparation, classroom management and lesson delivery.”
On a number of occasions before Johnson was dismissed, Farah and his assistant Patrick Exner, sat in Johnson’s class to evaluate her teaching performance, said one of Johnson’s students, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation. “It seemed that [the administrators] checked up on her more than other teachers. We kind of knew it was coming,” the student said of Johnson’s dismissal.
Johnson said that although she was never given negative feedback, “I found out, after my dismissal, that my employee file contained documentation of concerns regarding my performance.”
Most of the staff members involved in the unionization attempt are no longer teaching at Ubah Medical Academy, Oyederu said. “I can’t say they were fired because of unionization,” he added. “They’ve just moved on, and some of them are advancing in their academics.”