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Amid Propel Schools Unionization Fight, Organizers Accuse Administration Of Aggressive Tactics

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
A teacher leads a class at Propel Hazelwood, a K-8 school in Pittsburgh.

A campaign to unionize educators is underway at one of the region’s largest charter school networks, but organizers say administrators have tried to thwart the effort. And while officials at Pittsburgh-based Propel Schools say they have simply shared their concerns about unionization, critics accuse them of using misinformation and intimidation in an attempt to dissuade its roughly 400 teachers, education coordinators, counselors, and other staff from organizing.

Since the beginning of the school year, staff at Propel have been working with the Pennsylvania State Education Association to gather signatures to petition for a union election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. Organizers are confident they’ll be ready by early spring for the vote, which would determine whether employees scattered across Propel’s 13 Pittsburgh-area campuses can form a union.

But Matt Edgell, region advocacy coordinator for PSEA in Allegheny County, said the pro-union campaign has been marred by aggressive tactics on the part of Propel officials.

In a Nov. 10 letter to Propel CEO and Superintendent Tina Chekan, Edgell listed several instances where school officials had allegedly sought to “interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” who are considering whether to form a union.

For example, the letter accused administrators of holding a mandatory staff meeting to disseminate “derogatory and false information about union membership.” The letter accuses Chekan of falsely claiming that, when she taught in the Wilkinsburg School District earlier in her career, she’d been “personally fined” by her teachers’ union. In an interview, Edgell said it was unclear what would have prompted the fine and that a review of union records found no evidence of it.

But regardless, he wrote in his letter, “Propel management's current anti-union campaign is putting increased pressure on staff and faculty during an already difficult time [with COVID-19], taking energy away from our students and driving a wedge between educators and their building administrators.”

Chekan wrote back in a Nov. 20 email but did not address the details of Edgell’s allegations. Nor did she agree to the organizer’s request that the administration remain neutral on the potential union vote. Rather, she noted that employers have “the right of free speech on labor matters.”

“Propel believes its employees should be informed if and when they make decisions regarding union representation,” she added. “As a result, Propel will continue to inform its employees.”

But in his Nov. 10 letter, Edgell also accused Propel administrators of resorting to intimidation tactics. He alleged, for example, that one administrator told a teaching resident that, by signing an “interest card” in support of holding a union election, the resident would “hurt their career." Other teachers, the letter said, were denied leave after submitting interest cards.

On Monday, Propel spokesperson Sonya Toler said that, for legal reasons, she could not comment on Edgell’s allegations, and she reiterated Chekan’s message that Propel seeks to educate employees about the implications of unionizing.

Duquesne University education professor Jason Margolis noted that unions can be viewed as a threat to the “free-market approach to education” that charter schools profess to foster. Although the schools are public, they are run independently and face fewer regulations than traditional neighborhood schools. Nationally, only one in ten charters were unionized in the 2016-17 school year, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

“Charter schools are supposed to fill a gap [for] students and parents who want a certain theme or a certain thing to be achieved for their children, that's not being achieved in the existing school structure,” Margolis said. “Unions can be seen as creating a degree of inflexibility such that a charter school might perceive themselves to operate better without a union.”

Margolis said charter school operators might worry that union rules to promote equity in hiring and pay could give the schools less latitude in recruiting teachers who have less traditional backgrounds in education, but who fit the schools' focus on, for example, business or the arts. In Pennsylvania, up to one quarter of professional staff members at charter schools can teach without state certification.

“And then on the other side, people feel that teachers who are not protected enough will be manipulated by the system,” Margolis said. “It's a constant balance between allowing enough flexibility to move with changing times and providing people enough security and stability so that they can do good work.”

PSEA's Edgell said that those principles weren't at odds, and that charter schools would improve if educators were to gain more influence through unions. In any case, he added, “All work has value, and every single American worker should have the right to organize.”

David Osborne, CEO of the conservative nonprofit Americans for Fair Treatment, doubted that PSEA would prioritize the interests of charter school employees. “PSEA sees charter schools as a threat to public school teachers and has actually opposed expansion and funding to charter schools consistently for at least 20 years,” he said.

An attorney, Osborne said he has advocated for employees whose unions donated to charities the employees did not support. Because the National Labor Relations Board considers charter schools to be private employers, Osborne said they might be exempt from a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision that bars public sector unions from collecting dues from non-union members.

“The concept of exclusive representation means that once the union is invited in, it doesn't just represent the employees who are really excited about it: It also represents the … employees who really didn't want the union and didn’t vote for it,” Osborne said. “And it is extraordinarily difficult to kick the union out once it's been voted in. It's costly and risky for unionized employees to counter organize on their own time without resources.”

However, Conor McAteer, who teaches 11th grade English at Propel’s Andrew Street High School in Munhall, thinks that unions are “very attractive to teachers right now.”

“We want our voices to make equitable and positive change within our organization. And we want that to be a permanent fixture within the way our organization operates,” said McAteer.

Late this summer, McAteer asked the PSEA for help establishing a union at Propel. He was disappointed that administrators didn't consult more closely with staff on their plan for returning to school amid the coronavirus. McAteer and other instructors wanted to work from home while teaching remotely. But the administration instead had staff report to their school buildings and lead classes virtually.

A union, McAteer said, would not only give educators more influence over COVID-19 protocols, but would also help to improve teacher retention and the quality of instruction.

Though he said he was troubled by his administration’s opposition, McAteer predicted it would have little effect.

“I actually don't really see the administrative response being a particularly significant challenge for us,” said McAteer, “I think that most of the educators that I've spoken to have been able to do their own research and make their own opinions.”