In Partnership with 74

Even as UTLA looks to bolster declining union membership with push into charters, one school’s teachers voted to decertify after just two years

LA School Report | February 12, 2018

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(Port of Los Angeles photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)

As the Los Angeles teachers union continues to try to organize educators at the city’s largest charter school network, teachers at one of the few independent charter schools that joined the union voted to leave it after less than two years because union officials were pushing their own agenda, according to interviews and documents reviewed by LA School Report.

Teachers at Port of Los Angeles High School had come to United Teachers Los Angeles looking to secure a voice during a time of tumult in the school’s leadership, but they left the union after they failed to get contract waivers they said union leadership had promised.

The goals of the teachers and the union clashed, Principal Tom Scotti said.

“From what I’ve been told, there were many reasons for why” the school’s teachers voted to leave the union, he said, but the main reason was “a bait and switch with the union.”

“They were told that if they did not want tenure, the union wouldn’t push for it, but that turned out to be not the case.”

He said the teachers had given UTLA their list of priorities, “and salaries were lower on that list, it was more about having a voice.” But the union “made it more about compensation. It became about the voice of the union and not the voice of our teachers,” he said. “They were constantly told (by UTLA), ‘This is how we do it.’ But that’s not why the teachers brought them in.”

The union was “brought in so that they could make sure neither the board nor basically someone in my position could just force change without at least the voice of faculty and staff, which they have now,” Scotti said.

UTLA’s membership has declined more than 25 percent since 2008, mirroring a national trend in the percentage of American workers who belong to labor unions. Unions nationwide are bracing for further losses this year, when a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees could deal a severe blow to their coffers. The case, which will be argued in front of the high court this month, challenges whether public employee unions can charge non-members for fees related to collective bargaining.

The turmoil at the high school in the heart of Los Angeles’s port area began when Scotti announced in October 2014 he was leaving. Fearing that new leadership would dismantle successes, teachers voted to join UTLA. Under Scotti’s leadership, the school raised its test scores and started a career technical program with five pathways, including boat operations and Coast Guard certification and residential and commercial construction — jobs needed at the thriving Port of Los Angeles, which moves more cargo annually than any other port in the Western Hemisphere.

However, a month later, Scotti agreed to return to his post after negotiating with the school’s governing board to redefine his role, the Daily Breeze reported. As the teachers worked to hammer out their collective bargaining agreements, they say the union resisted adjusting their contract to the school’s unique needs even though assurances had been made before the teachers decided to join the union. That sparked a new drive, this time to leave.

A petition to decertify was filed more than a year ago, and during an election held by the Public Employee Relations Board, 32 out of 57 teachers, psychologists, and counselors voted to withdraw from the union.

“During bargaining and contract discussions, a majority of POLA’s teachers recognized that the unique ideals and practices of the school were not supported by UTLA,” the teachers said in a statement. “Teachers realized that UTLA policies would take precedence over POLA’s practices. Essentially, the decision-making process was no longer entirely under the teachers’ control. With UTLA on campus, teachers were pitted against administrators, yet both are essential in educating students.”

One teacher wrote in an email to his colleagues that was included as part of paperwork filed with the Public Employee Relations Board:

“There was talk of a hidden agenda by UTLA, that they didn’t really support charter schools, etc. The reason to push for decertification was NOT to banish all unions forever, but to give us a chance to find the one that fits the needs of our unique situation here at POLAHS. Many of us felt (and still do feel) that we jumped into bed with UTLA too abruptly (albeit understandably) because we had some major issues facing us (Scotti leaving the Board situation, etc.) but together we were stronger and a bold move had to be made. After the dust settled and there had been time for reflection, a split occurred.”

The decertification vote came as the union has worked aggressively for more than two years to sign up teachers at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, LA’s largest charter management network. Alliance’s network spans 28 schools employing more than 660 teachers and counselors.

The union’s efforts to organize charter school teachers have come as membership has dwindled from 45,000 in 2008 to about 33,000. The union says it represents 900 charter school teachers, most of them at district schools that converted to charter status.

A UTLA official who declined to speak on the record because he was not authorized to do so said in both cases the Port of Los Angeles teachers and those at Alliance came to UTLA to unionize.

Sarah Favot contributed to this report.

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