- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Some 430 educators at Propel Schools, a charter school network in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County, will begin receiving ballots from the National Labor Relations Board today as the voting period opens on their unionization drive. The teachers, counselors, coaches, school psychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, instructional specialists, and nurses, spread across thirteen schools, have until April 29 to return their ballots.
Unions are far less common in charter schools than in traditional public schools, and charters’ low wages have long undercut wages elsewhere. That’s why teachers’ unions frequently support organizing charter school educators even while officially opposing charter school expansion. The educators at Propel are organizing with one such union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), which currently represents around a dozen charter schools across the state.
Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke to Sarah Boyle, an English teacher at Braddock Hills High School, and Conor McAteer, an English teacher at Andrew Street High School, about the organizing drive at Propel. Both Boyle and McAteer are members of the union’s organizing committee. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
How did your union drive start?
I had started thinking about unionizing about a year ago. In March of 2020, I started talking about it with coworkers. Then the pandemic hit, which slowed things down. It was during the summer, when there was a lot of uncertainty about going back to school, that I thought that this might be a good idea. At the time, the decision-making process was very unilateral. We weren’t really involved, and I felt that we should be.
It was getting closer to the start of the school year, and there was so little communication. They sent out a survey asking how we would like to go back: one option was fully in-person and another option was a hybrid of in-person and remote, but there was no option for fully virtual, which is what I wanted at that point. Again, this was last summer, when we knew a lot less about the virus.
Propel told us in August that we’d go back into the school, but they conceded that the first six weeks would be fully virtual — but we would still have to go into the building, which I thought was preposterous. So I wrote a letter in the form of a petition, asking that we be able to work from home during that time. It got a lot of traction among the educators, maybe around 120 signatures from the around four hundred employees. That indicated to me that there would probably be interest in this. After the letter, someone from another school who I had never spoken to before asked if I wanted to team up and get this going.
My memory of that letter is that we sent it to the CEO of Propel Schools, and her response was, more or less, “Thank you for your concerns. We think it’s safe for you to work in the building.” I guess technically that’s a response, but it didn’t feel like we were heard. For most of my time at Propel, I’ve joked about how much a union would help with certain issues. So, when there was an actual organizing campaign, I was all-in.
I think that it was pushed by the pandemic, but the burnout rate among educators at Propel is high and that has long been an issue. At the beginning of every school day at Braddock Hills High School, we circle up for a few minutes to talk about what’s going on. And it became clear to me that March is when people quit; March is when people who you love stand in the circle and say, “I really don’t want to leave, but I can’t make it work here.” These are people who love students, who love teaching, who want to make it work, and they decide to finish out the school year but not come back. I want those people to stay.
What causes high turnover at Propel?
The workload is heavy. I learned to teach in New York City, and we have a strong union there. You don’t have more than two classes to teach as a high school teacher, and if you have more than two, they either have to give you an extra prep period or pay you more. In my time at Propel, I have carried three courses every year, one of which is an AP [advanced placement] course, which is an expanded course load. Then they added advisory to that. They’re always adding things, and it’s hard to keep up. And it’s not as if you aren’t satisfying your bosses; you’re standing in front of kids and feel like you aren’t doing enough.
Teaching has a high turnover rate, It’s not just our organization; it’s everywhere. But our organization specifically hires a lot of young teachers — typically, it’s someone’s first or second teaching job right out of college. There’s a humongous learning curve to this job, so keeping up with that pace is really difficult for young teachers. People typically leave for schools that are unionized and have more support for young teachers.
Or they quit teaching. One of the questions in your first-round interviews at Propel is, “What does social justice mean to you?” So they’re hiring young people who are super idealistic — I’m idealistic, too, even if not particularly young — and believe that they are going to be able to make a difference. If you couple that with a heavy workload, your personal failure to keep up becomes a crushing moral blow.
A lot of people in the United States want a union, but they don’t know how to go about building one. Can you explain how your conversations went with coworkers, many of whom don’t have prior experience with unions?
When I was talking to people and pitching the idea of how this might make things better, I’d talk about our common problems. I know my coworkers pretty well, and while I haven’t been there for a long time, I’ve established myself as a personality in the building. I feel like I have a pretty accurate read on my coworkers’ feelings about work, and I experience those problems too. That level of empathy helped to get people on board.
We have done a lot of educating around unions. One of our other organizers talked about approaching someone who had been reluctant to sign on, and in the midst of their conversation, that other teacher asked, “Can you explain what collective bargaining is?” So the job isn’t even to convince you; it’s to explain what a union is and how it works.
Given the ideals of a lot of our coworkers, it’s also about pointing out that a lot of the things you believe in are well supported by a union. In a union, we make decisions democratically. People have been open to that idea of democracy and that there are things beyond collective bargaining that we can do through the union. And it doesn’t have to be a conflict with Propel: both sides want strong schools and successful students. We want to hold on to our educators. We want the communities that the schools are in to support us. That’s the mission. It’s not a sell or a persuasion. That’s what I say, and then I walk away and answer questions as they arise.
I’d just add that the data is also on our side. This particular effort is not necessarily motivated by pay, but teachers in unionized schools earn more money. Teachers at unionized schools stay at the school longer. Everyone wants to reduce teacher turnover, and this could be a way. So it was fairly easy to have conversations with people.
Organizers have previously alleged that Propel’s administration is waging an aggressive anti-union campaign, with captive audience meetings and intimidation. How has management responded to your union drive?
They’re going to do what they’re going to do. But there have been weekly captive audience meetings and increasing emails that now explicitly tell people to vote no. Their anti-union campaign recently has been aggressive.
The general message we’ve gotten is the third-party narrative, the idea that we’re bringing in someone to speak for us, as if we were swindled or something, rather than did our research and chose to unionize from our own volition. It’s frustrating, but Sarah’s right: they’re going to do what they’re going to do.
I feel confident going into the election. The amount of work that we’ve put into this outweighs the anti-union messaging. One fear that I have is that as at-will employees, you’re always fearful of your job security. So I’m hoping that people don’t vote with the idea that they could lose their job if they vote the wrong way. I hope that they vote based on the facts.
You mentioned the pandemic as an impetus for unionizing, which has been true for a lot of workers. But going forward, what’s your vision of a workplace with a strong union? You want a seat at the table, but concretely, what does that mean for you?
Conor mentioned that Propel sent surveys to us. There are a lot of surveys. There are committees where you can talk about the organization’s new initiatives. But they don’t have to do anything about what you say. If we’re unionized, we will have more of a voice in decisions. It gives [them] a reason [for] why they have to keep talking to us.
I want to work in a school where I can be a career educator, where I can build my expertise and use it in the aid of the organization. So when I and other career educators offer input, they listen to us. Better pay will help people not quit, but that sense that when I speak people hear me is huge for worker satisfaction too. That feeling that what I do makes a difference and my bosses value it is a big deal.
We’ve carved out a space for ourselves in this organization, and we want to see it get better, but year after year, for whatever reason, it hasn’t. The life span of teaching at Propel is something like five years. We recently had two teachers leave our school in March — just like Sarah said, that’s when people quit — and the result is that we’re constantly covering classes during our prep periods. We get compensated for that, but there are many days when I would rather have my prep.
So I’m hoping that having a union and job security will reduce turnover, leading people to stay with the organization longer. That’s what is best not only for teachers but for our students. It’s bad for students when teachers leave year after year. That bugs me, and it bugs kids too.
We put a survey out with a Google form, and there is a question along the lines of, “What do you love about your school, and what do you wish would improve about your school?” A former student from Braddock Hills High School said, “It’s really hard that these teachers come into your lives and you get to know them and they get to know you, and then they don’t come back.” There are adult things that kids don’t notice, or they only notice when they get older, but this is a grown-up thing that they can’t miss. They can’t miss that we didn’t have a science teacher for half a year. One of my students didn’t have a math teacher for a full year. We want to fix that, and I know Propel wants to fix that. Let us come help you.