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Appeals Court okays union recognition in charter schools

(New Orleans – September 25) Louisiana’s charter schools must recognize and bargain with unions if that is the desire of teachers and school employees, according to a unanimous ruling by the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The September 21 ruling by a three-judge panel affirmed a decision by the National Labor Relations Board, asserting that the International High School of New Orleans violated the National Labor Relations Act when the group holding the school’s charter refused to recognize the school’s bargaining unit.

“This is a victory for teachers, students and parents in New Orleans,” said United Teachers of New Orleans President Jim Randels. “It means that more people will be working together to improve our schools as partners in education.”

Teachers at the school had petitioned in 2016 for UTNO to be recognized as their bargaining agent in contract negotiations. Over 65 percent of the teachers signed onto the petition. The holder of the charter, Voices for International Business and Education, rejected the request, claiming that Louisiana law does not allow collective bargaining for public employees without approval of the employer.

The NLRB disagreed, ruling that Voices is a private employer, not a political subdivision, and that teachers at the school are employed under federal labor law and not state statute.

The court sided with the NLRB. In the ruling, Circuit Court Judge Gregg Costa wrote, “There is no way for the public to select the board members who set policy for Voices. We thus agree with the [NLRB] that Voices is not administered by individuals who are responsible to public officials or to the general electorate."

There are very different rules for negotiating collective bargaining agreements in the public and private sectors. Public school employees in Louisiana may engage in bargaining if their school board agrees. There are about five school systems in the state that have union contracts with educators.

For private employers, however, federal labor law applies. In those cases, employers must negotiate with employees if a majority of the employees petition for a contract.

“When at least 50 percent of the teachers in a charter school request a formal partnership,” Randels said, “we strongly believed – and the court affirmed – that the charter board should work in good faith with the educators they hired.”

The NLRB and the appeals court noted that Louisiana’s charter school law was deliberately crafted so that the holders of charters are not political subdivisions of the state.

"Because Louisiana chose to insulate its charters from the political process,” the ruling states, “Voices like most other privately controlled employers is subject to the National Labor Relations Act.”

Charters can be authorized either by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education or by local school boards. They operate with independent boards that are subject to fewer rules than traditional public schools. Those boards are not elected, the court ruling says, and “There is no way for the public to select the board members who set policy…”

Three other New Orleans charter schools, Ben Franklin High School, Morris Jeff Community School, and the Mary D. Coghill Charter school, already have collective bargaining agreements with UTNO.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, hailed the decision as a step forward for accountability in the state’s public charter schools.

“Educators in charter schools do not have elected boards they can appeal to when policies should be adjusted,” Carter said, “and the voting public has no say in their operation. This ruling at least gives education experts – the teachers and school employees in the classroom – a voice when it comes to the best practices for creating an excellent learning environment.”

UTNO is affiliated with the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers.