Tuesday, August 28, 2012

New Orlean Teachers Union Rising From the Dead?

Zombie Teachers Union? (Nanning Teachers College, Guangxi, image by Rex Pe, Flickr)
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans became the poster child for what Naomi Kline dubbed “Disaster Capitalism.” Businesses came ostensibly to “help” residents recover, but in actuality were there primarily to help themselves to billions of dollars in disaster relief funds.

While Katrina did not do significant damage to the school system, the general chaos and misery that followed provided excellent cover for public education profiteers, who convinced the city to turn over most of the school district to private charter school operators and fire all 7,500 of its teachers, driving a hefty spike into the heart of the union. Since Katrina, the feds have pumped $3 billion into New Orleans schools (Labor Notes reports), providing considerable opportunities for private business to turn a profit. The charter schools have received millions more from private donors like Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

The union fought back in the courts and, after seven years, won a small victory this June when a judge ruled that the firings were illegal. This provided little relief for the teachers, however, as very few will get their old jobs back (though some will receive small settlement payments). It also leaves the city’s schools in the hands of private charter school operators

Nevertheless, United Teachers New Orleans (UTNO) has been trying to rebuild its membership and regain a foothold in the city. The union currently has around 1,000 members (about one quarter of the city’s teachers), though it has no contracts at any New Orleans schools (according to Labor Notes). Their efforts are further hampered by the fact that, under Louisiana state law, they are not guaranteed the right to collectively bargain.

UTNO organizers face other challenges as well, such as recent state legislation that weakened tenure protections, thus making it easier to get rid of experienced veteran teachers who are often the most vocal union advocates.

Ironically, (but not surprisingly), New Orleans schools are performing poorly, despite the large influx of funds. None of the Recovery District’s 15 “direct-run” schools, and only 21% of its charter schools, received passing grades in state evaluations. Governor Bobby Jindal essentially blamed the teachers for these terrible scores and used the scores to garner support for the legislation, which requires that 50% of teachers’ evaluations be based on student test scores. Thus, if scores remain low (which they likely will, since they are influenced primarily by students’ socioeconomic status), teachers will be unlikely to earn tenure and will face the constant threat of dismissal, especially if they are seen as union supporters or troublemakers.

To make matters worse, in order to earn tenure, teachers will have to receive five “highly effective” ratings within six years, and veteran teachers can lose tenure after a single “ineffective” rating. Keep in mind that few districts evaluate their teachers every year, or require “highly effective” ratings (“satisfactory” or “effective” are generally considered adequate). In addition to making tenure virtually impossible, the frequency of evaluations, itself, is an unreasonable burden on teachers and their students. Each evaluation cycle, teachers must attend meetings with evaluators, complete extra paper work and jump through other hoops that take away time from their students and their teaching responsibilities.

Within the six district-run schools, UTNO has close to 80% membership. Labor Notes writes that in these schools, much of the old contract is still enforced. It is a different story in the charter schools, where union membership is negligible. Under an agreement with the Recovery District, however, UTNO is permitted access to the schools and is entitled to dues check-off for any teachers who sign up.

The challenge is getting these teachers to sign up. Many are young Teach For America (TFA) graduates hired on short-term contracts who do not see union membership as being in their interests. Others have been told outright to avoid the union, as it is dominated by the same veteran teachers who caused the problems plaguing the school district (that TFA grads were supposedly there to fix).

There is a lot of fear and ignorance of unions that UTNO must counter. More importantly, they need to convince teachers, including TFA teachers and those at private charter schools, that union membership is in their interests and will benefit them, both in the short- and long-term. This means improving things like job security, pay and benefits, working conditions and class sizes.

UTNO has not been able to do this. It has launched an admirable community outreach campaign and engaged in numerous solidarity actions with other unions and community-based organizations. It has helped fight school closings and takeovers. Yet its members acknowledge that they’re not in a position to win much right now. Indeed, as long as its members can have tenure stripped away for low student test scores, they are at risk of losing the small foothold they still have within the district.

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