The U.S. has witnessed an uptick in education worker organizing since the Covid-19 pandemic began, with K-12 educators, graduate student workers, and support staff across the country having engaged in collective actions against school leadership over the past year. For workers at one social justice-oriented charter school in California’s Bay Area, unionizing with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the best way they could make their school live up to its progressive values.
The teachers and support staff at Caliber: Beta Academy in Richmond, CA announced their decision to join the IWW on April 21, becoming the first union for public charter school workers in the city. The Caliber Workers Union, however, is the product of the staff’s yearlong fight for accountability from the school leadership.
“The stated pitch of what Caliber is supposed to be — the slogan for the school is ‘Education Reimagined,’” said Tyler Powles, a third and fourth grade science teacher who has been working at the school for five years. “They’re really trying to put forward this posture of trying to do something different.”
Lack of communication
Like many of the teachers at Caliber: Beta Academy, Powles said he was initially attracted to the school’s progressive nature. After years of working at Caliber, it became clear to Powles and his fellow educators that the school’s mission statement did not align with the actions of its leadership.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of dialogue between the people making decisions and the people executing the plan,” said Michael White, an early childhood computer science teacher in his second year at Caliber. “We didn’t feel like we were getting a lot of respect as professionals.”
Caliber leadership courts KIPP
The rift between the staff and administration widened last year, when the Caliber board of directors decided to partner with the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP. Part of the largest public charter school network started by former members of Teach For America, KIPP was created to serve students from low-income and marginalized communities, but has received criticism for its regimented structure and disciplinary measures.
It might seem out of place for a school that promotes its own unique learning experience to want to affiliate, but Powles said that the decision would prove lucrative for the school’s top leadership.
“The founders of the school are former hedge fund managers from Goldman Sachs,” he said. “Their interests are in scaling the school — getting more students, more schools, which equals more money.”
Although their stated goal was to replicate KIPP’s model, the Caliber administration did not seem interested in addressing the staff’s concerns. Powles said that Caliber: Beta was “out of compliance for a range of things: workers’ rights, rights of families whose students have IEPs, occupational safety.”
“This place is not fair”
The Caliber teachers’ safety and labor concerns were shared by the support staff. At the start of the pandemic, the administration started to tack on extra responsibilities for these hourly workers. “They’ve been making materials for ESOL speakers, since a lot of them speak Spanish,” said Powles. “One of the meal team teachers was teaching a phonics class this year. They aren’t compensated for any of this extra labor.”
Early in the school year, the Caliber administration unilaterally cut the support staff’s healthcare benefits. The news was especially devastating because many of the hourly workers are parents of Caliber students, and nearly all of them are people of color who live in Richmond.
This wasn’t the only instance of racist and discriminatory practices against workers of color at Caliber. First grade teacher Morgan Hubbard said the incident that finally pushed the Caliber staff to organize was that the administration denied a Black woman who had been teaching at the school for many years a leadership position.
“That instance in particular kind of solidified everything that I had known over the last five years,” said Hubbard. “This place is not fair, all teachers and staff are not treated equally, and often some of the people who get left out are the support staff, most of whom are people of color.”
Time to Organize!
Powles said he decided to contact the IWW after watching The Jimmy Dore Show’s interview with IWW Organizing Department Chairperson Maxim Baru. He said that the union’s organizing strategy of solidarity unionism was “very attractive” to him and his co-workers.
“We are in a system that is hierarchical and exclusionary, and we didn’t want to join a union that is structured as a bureaucracy like a lot of unions are,” Powles said. “One of the school’s values is collective responsibility, and the workers really believe in that, and we want to advocate for and with each other. So the IWW’s model of working together in solidarity and bargaining on each other’s behalf instead of creating little silos was attractive.”
In March of 2020, the Caliber teachers and support staff began to work with both the IWW’s Organizing Department, and Bay Area Branch. Cameron Crowell, also Chairperson of the Organizing Department, noted that helping the CWU members strengthen their relationships in the wider Richmond community was relatively easy, due to the respect the Caliber families already showed them.
“The work was very easy just because of how much these parents love these teachers,” said Crowell. “They’re so appreciative, and whenever we’re having conversations with parents, it’s just the easiest conversation ever. Parents are chomping at the bit to fight for a better school as well.”
Since Caliber had been practicing remote learning during the early stages of the pandemic, the Caliber Workers Union came up with a way to talk to their students’ family members face-to-face and get the parents to support the union.
“We had a rally in a park next to Caliber and tried to spread the word in the community as best we can. We went around the community with flyers,” said Powles. “One of the big concerns in the community is traffic safety. We drafted up a petition about getting a safety monitor for the traffic and went door to door talking to people about their experience with unions and Caliber and seeing if they wanted to sign the petition.”
“We didn’t have a single conversation where the parents hesitated,” added Crowell. “They were all like, ‘Where do I sign?’”
The Bosses Strike Back
Unlike the Caliber parents, the school leadership has not been supportive of the union effort. The staff sent a letter to the school board the same day they went public with the CWU to request the board’s voluntary recognition of their union, but management chose not to meet with the workers. This prompted the CWU to file for certification with the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) on April 23, which compelled the Caliber administration to deliver a response to the government agency acknowledging the union campaign.
Almost immediately after the CWU filed for certification as a collective bargaining unit, Caliber school officials began to sabotage the process. When school officials went to court in May, they tried to claim to the PERB that principals and other administrative leadership should be in the bargaining unit. Although both Caliber workers and the IWW Organizing Department seemed confident that PERB would ignore the school officials and weed out managers from the bargaining unit, both stated this has allowed the administration more time to target and punish workers they perceive as “leaders” of the union drive.
Powles said that he and two other teachers who were at the forefront of the CWU campaign were not given offer letters to return for the 2021-2022 school year, despite having documentation that he had exceeded the expectations of his job. When he spoke to Jasmine Douville, the Director of School Culture for Caliber’s Lower School, Powles said he received a Facebook message from Douville that stated she was in a meeting with Caliber staff members where they discussed his role as a “leader” of the CWU.
Powles and the other two teachers who did not receive offer letters are filing an unfair labor practice claim that Caliber officials chose not to rehire them because of their participation in the union.
“They have several times over shared documents that they legally shouldn’t be sharing with people,” he said “They have done intimidation around the union. It’s pretty clear that they really don’t know what a lot of these laws are.”
This summer has seen the administration double-down on union-busting tactics. On June 8, the last day of school at Caliber: Beta Academy, Caliber CEO Terrance Johnson sent a letter about the staff’s union effort to the schools’ parents and family members. In the letter, Johnson claims the IWW “has not contacted Caliber directly to discuss their intention to organize staff at the school, nor have they initiated a dialog with us directly about their goals.” He further suggests that because of “the wide range of opinion on this important issue among our staff, we do not believe it is the right course of action to recognize the union at this point,” and he closes the letter by linking to a right-wing anti-union think tank’s article about how teachers’ unions harm charter schools.
The IWW Organizing Department responded to CEO Johnson’s claims by emailing him directly, and stating that the IWW had in fact written “several unanswered emails and invited admin to worker events notifying you about workers’ intent to file for certification, our rights as employees not to be retaliated against or spied on, and shown proof of majority support among staff.”
The Families Respond
Caliber school officials fired their latest salvo against the union when they announced on the school’s website that they would discuss the board of directors’ legal measures against the CWU during a closed session of their June 24 board meeting. The CWU had already learned that the board is now trying to claim in court that another Caliber-run school in Vallejo should be included in the Caliber: Beta workers’ bargaining unit, so they quickly mobilized and messaged union members and supportive families to attend the board meeting.
More than fifty people showed up to the board meeting, and several parents spoke in support of the Caliber Workers Union. Hubbard, the first grade teacher, said that CEO Johnson quickly announced that the board would not be recognizing the CWU and would move forward with legal action. Hubbard said Johnson’s announcement angered the parents in attendance.
“They are fired up!,” she exclaimed. “I think that’s what got a lot of parents to the meeting. They want the school’s money to be spent on the students, not litigation.”
Next Steps for the Union
The school board’s persistent union-busting hasn’t deterred any of the teachers and support staff in the Caliber Workers Union who have gone on to elect the bargaining team, and are behaving like they will still be at the table with management. “Beginning of next school year, we’ll elect more people to it so that new staff will have an opportunity to participate as well,” added Powles.
The CWU members said they draw inspiration from being part of a new wave of charter school workers who are organizing.
“I think it’s easy in education to feel like you’re on a little island with your class, especially in charter schools, and I think it feels exciting to feel like we’re blazing a trail,” said Powles. “And we’re discovering that there is a growing number of charters that are unionizing, especially around the Bay Area. It’s inspiring to get to hear these people’s stories and to hear that this is something important and necessary where we are, and it’s part of a larger struggle and precedent.”
“If anything, this year has taught me that you got to fight for what you believe in and stop at no cost, and I also think that it is us, the teachers and the staff, that makes schools run,” added Hubbard. “And the administration has no idea what goes on. We know they couldn’t do it without us, so all the power to the people!”