This past Friday, WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle broke the story that last Wednesday, twenty-four hours before the teachers and staff at Paul Public Charter School were scheduled to vote, the American Federation of Teachers called off the move to form the affiliated District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff once it realized that the ballot measure would go down in defeat. In an early article about this effort, Rachel Cohen of the American Prospect revealed that 75 percent of the educators had agreed to join DC ACTS. Mr. Austermuhle, in his excellent reporting, quotes history instructor David Koening, the lead teacher behind the effort to unionize, as stating:
“Our organizing committee felt that we had the votes to win, and voted to go ahead with the election, but we did not have enough people who were wiling to be public with their support to convince the AFT that we were definitely going to win.”
This story is a tremendous lesson for managers everywhere. The best way to avoid union activity at your place of employment is to carefully listen to your employees, and react constructively to the information they are providing. Here are Paul CEO Jami Dunham’s comments about this point as quoted in the WAMU piece:
“Our board, our leaders, our administration definitely sought input and feedback and asked questions and listened and wanted to hear issues and concerns. . . I feel like that’s something we’ve always done. . . We had a renewed energy around it, because we wanted to make sure that we responded to our staff for them to feel heard and supported. We made sure we listened. We did a ton of listening.”
The school really dodged a bullet. The union would have placed a major barrier between the staff and administration as is always the case whenever employees are represented by a third party. It also would have also prevented the school from making rapid changes in its structure, systems, and processes to address the needs of its students since modifications would have had to be negotiated through a collective bargaining agreement. Perhaps those working at Paul looked back and recollected the union activity in 1999 when Paul became the first and only DCPS school to convert to becoming a charter, as I previously illustrated and as explained by Josephine Baker, former executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, in her book The Evolution & Revolution of DC Charter Schools:
“The announcement of the approval of Paul’s application to convert to charter school status was the beginning of intense activity to thwart the conversion. First, teachers’ union members of Paul’s faculty organized a student walk-out to protest the conversion. The students, who may or may not have cared about the implications of the school changing its governance structure, seemed to offer little resistance to the opportunity to ‘spontaneously’ leave their classes at the suggestion of their teachers. At least one teacher who helped facilitate teacher signatures of the conversion petition reported being harassed by the teachers’ union representatives” (p. 49).
In addition, if teachers at Paul became unionized there is no telling which school would be next. This news is especially important in light of the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board’s recent suggestion that a unionized charter would add to the diversity of its portfolio.