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Judge issues mixed rulings in unionization struggle between UTLA and charter school operator Alliance

Craig Clough | June 7, 2016

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UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl


A California Administrative Law judge has issued a number of rulings in the year-plus legal battle between Alliance College-Ready Public Schools and the LA teachers union, UTLA.

Friday’s rulings on several complaints that were brought to the California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) were mixed, with some in favor of the independent charter school operator and some in favor of the union.

In a sign of how contentious the struggle between the two organizations has been, both issued news releases claiming victory. Alliance called the rulings a “major win,” and UTLA said the rulings showed Alliance “repeatedly and illegally violated teachers’ rights.”

Alliance operates 27 independent charters in LA Unified, and Alliance’s management has for more than a year been resisting an attempt by UTLA to unionize its teachers.

Judge Kent Morizawa‘s rulings dismissed a number of complaints that UTLA had brought accusing Alliance officials of making coercive and threatening statements to its employees in a series of official communications. But he also found that Alliance officials had unlawfully denied UTLA organizers proper access to two schools and unlawfully denied UTLA access to its email system when it redirected a union email to teachers’ spam folders. He also found that an Alliance official made a coercive statement to a teacher by implying that the teacher’s views on unionization could impact her official evaluation.

“The email and campus access have long been a non-issue. UTLA has had access to Alliance emails for more than a year and has access to Alliance campuses,” Alliance Chief Development and Communications Officer Catherine Suitor said.

She added, “We admitted the singular statement of one principal was ill-advised – and not a reflection of Alliance policy in any way. The principal is no longer at the school. We agree with judge that no one should feel coerced or intimidated.”

The rulings order Alliance to cease and desist from blocking emails or UTLA access to its schools. A news release from Alliance focused on the rulings in its favor, including that official communications from Alliance leaders to its employees about UTLA were not coercive.

“In a major win for Alliance College Ready Public Schools, Judge Morizawa with Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) rejected UTLA’s claims of coercion and dismissed the union’s attempt to block the Alliance’s First Amendment rights to communicate with their employees,” the release stated. “This important decision has deemed that Alliance has, in fact, acted in good faith and lawfully during the prolonged unionization effort. After reviewing Alliance’s communications with its schools and staff—the Judge shared an opinion that Alliance has been sharing accurate information that is within its legal boundaries.”

UTLA focused its release on the rulings in its favor.

“Alliance has been ordered to ‘cease and desist’ its illegal behavior,” said UTLA attorney Jesus Quinonez in a statement. “That’s not a ‘major win,’ as Alliance management tried to claim in an internal communication to employees. It is a finding of fact that the executives of this company have violated the law by interfering with the rights of teachers and school employees.”

UTLA represents the teachers at a number of independent charter schools, but the majority of the district’s charters, including Alliance’s, remain non-union. After UTLA started trying to organize the Alliance staff, it filed a number of complaints with PERB claiming Alliance leaders were illegally blocking unionization efforts.

Alliance leaders have continuously denied the claims. In December, PERB received a temporary injunction against Alliance on behalf of UTLA regarding the complaints, and Alliance was ordered to cease a number of activities, including maintaining or sponsoring petitions on its website soliciting employee signatures that affirm opposition to unionization, polling certified employees about their positions on unionization, denying UTLA representatives access to school sites after-hours and blocking UTLA emails to Alliance employees.

Suitor said that Friday’s rulings were the first two of five complaints UTLA has filed with PERB and said she expects positive rulings on the remaining three.

UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl praised the PERB rulings as a victory for UTLA.

“The educators at Alliance involved in the organizing campaign are dedicated to their students and their profession; they want to work together through a union to improve education for students and improve retention of teaching staff, but rather than being heard they were harassed,” Caputo-Pearl said in a statement. “This court ruling sends a strong message that the rights of teachers should be honored and that union activity in public charter schools is a protected right.”

The battle between the two organizations has also reached Sacramento, as the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee voted in May to audit Alliance to find out if it was improperly using funds in its public campaign against Alliance.

*This article has been updated to add two statements from Alliance’s Catherine Suitor.

For more on the legal conflicts, read these previous stories:

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