City Desk

Charter School Pledges To ‘Not Coerce’ Unionizing Teachers

A former history teacher at the Cesar Chavez charter high school on Capitol Hill has accepted a $15,000 settlement to end his dispute with the school's administration, which he claims fired him for trying to start a union.

David Krakow, 28, tells City Desk that, under the terms of the deal, the charter school has further agreed to tack up a rather striking notice, which reads in part:

"FEDERAL LAW GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO:

Form, join or assist a union;
Choose representatives to bargain with us on your behalf;
Act together with other employees for your benefit and protection;
Choose not to engage in any of these protected activities.

In recognition of our employees’ rights:

WE WILL NOT coerce you by telling you that you can not engage in protected concerted activities.

WE WILL NOT
tell you that you are not a good fit, because you engage in protected concerted activities.

WE WILL NOT tell you that the school will close if you continue your union activities and/or protected concerted activities.

Terri Smyth-Riding, director of  human resources for Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools For Public Policy, which operates the school, confirmed the amount of the settlement. However, she denied that Krakow was fired for his unionizing efforts. To the contrary, she explains, "We did not want to incur any further legal expense."

The dispute started in February 2009, when Krakow says he and some other teachers began meeting at coffee shops to discuss  problems at the high school, located at 709 12th Street SE. According to Krakow, the teachers gabbed about lots of work-related issues, but one emerged as a primary concern: Chavez was bleeding talent.

Though the D.C. Charter School Board doesn't keep data on teacher retention for individual schools, a spokesperson for the board noted that in 2008  and 2009, Chavez charter schools, as a whole,  managed to retain only 53 percent of its faculty.

At the Capitol Hill campus, Krakow says, it felt like about a third of the faculty disappeared each year.

The teachers' group  figured the problem was that faculty members weren't getting their needs met by the administration. So they decided to try to change that.

The group made it a point to not call itself a union, Krakow says. "People as an entire faculty couldn't get behind a traditional union," he explains. Nonetheless, in March 2009, the group began acting like one. It drafted a letter to school leaders asking for a revamp of teacher contracts. Among their requests:

"Having fewer than twenty students per class and eighty students total in order to make teachers much more effective and students more successful...

"Limited class size and adequate prep time...

"Limiting the number of teacher work days before the school year...

"Publishing a pay scale..."

The letter also seemingly attempted to set up labor negotiations:

"We plan to elect representatives shortly and we would like to schedule a meeting with the representatives and you for the week after spring break to begin this collaboration."

Though the correspondence was signed by members of the Capitol Hill faculty, Krakow says it was clear that he was spearheading the effort. Not long after the letter, the school informed him that his contract wouldn't be renewed.

Smyth-Riding says Krakow was let go for "legitimate business reasons," adding, "It had a lot to do with our finances." She described Krakow as a good employee, but that the school couldn't afford his position anymore.

But Krakow says he got a different answer during a meeting with Garrett Phelan, the school's principal at the time. "You're not a good fit for the school," he recalled the ex-administrator as saying.

That baffled the employee, as he'd gotten positive work evaluations and had recently been promoted to the position of  faculty mentor, a gig that essentially involved helping other teachers up their skills, he says.

Things became a lot clearer when he met with Sean Hanover, then the school's human resources director, Krakow says. "He told me the school was fundamentally opposed to unions." Hanover also told him that if Chavez teachers were to ever form a union, the school would shut down in retaliation, he says.

Krakow decided not to take the ousting lying down. In March, he filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which often mediates these types of disputes.

Smyth-Riding says that while the school has never had a union, employees are welcomed to form one. She dismissed Krakow's claim that Chavez is anti-union as "groundless." She says Chavez has never had union for a very simple reason: its teachers are too content. "Our employees feel like they have an HR department where they can come down and voice their concerns," she says.

During its own independent investigation of Krakow's complaint, however, the NLRB "found reasonable cause to believe that some of the allegations of the charge were meritorious," says Wayne Gold, the board's regional director. The agency issued a complaint accusing Phaelen, Hanover, and the school's vice-principal, Arturo Martinez, of union busting.

According to the NLRB complaint, investigators believe Phealan coerced teachers by telling them they couldn't engage in "protected concerted activity" and had also fired employees for engaging in similar activities.  Investigators also backed up the allegation that Hanover had "threatened and coerced employees with school closure."

Under NLRB guidelines, Krakow would have been eligible for an award of up to $5,000 in lost wages, as a result of the investigation's findings. However, the two sides agreed to settle for triple that amount prior to a scheduled April 7 hearing with NLRB.

Smyth-Riding insists that the settlement was not an acknowledgement of any wrongdoing on the school's part. "Multiple people who engaged in the same activities still work at Chavez," she says.

But Krakow, who has since found a new job at a private school in Bethesda, argues that point is irrelevant. "They only have to fire enough people to make everyone else afraid," he says. "Often firing one person is enough."

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  • She’s more Chavez than not

    Never met David Krakow, but by the accounts of the blog posters he's Norma Rae, Chavez, with a little Mandela thrown in. It seems a little overstated based on the few facts we have.

    I have met Irasema Salcido. She is hardly a diva, she has a tiny basement office identified by a paper sign taped to the door. She exudes passion and grace. I've heard her tell her story of immigration to Ivy League to school founder. She's authentic. I'm sure her schools have problems; all schools, all organizations have problems. Irasema Salcido would not run a sweatshop and she's not the union-buster sort.

    She deserves the benefit of the doubt until PROVEN otherwise.

  • Not Catbert

    I'm in HR and we're like the police--nobody likes us until they need us. We're at the company to protect and serve. We get your check replaced when you wash it in the washing machine and give you a place to cry when your boss is unreasonable.

    Don't be so quick to blame the HR lady. She's probably doing her job the best she can. She's supposed to be the "cheerleader of the company" She's supposed to protect the companies' interests. I bet those same people who are complaining will call her right away when they need to add their kids to their health insurance.

  • Kendra

    I find this article...amazing. I stand behind Mr. Krakow 100%. He taught me my 9th grade year at Chavez and I've learned so much from him. As a student at Chavez I have questioned since my 9th grade year why a school that was founded because of Cesar Chavez's beliefs wouldn’t allow their teachers to join unions. We sit in classes and learn what can be done to change and impact our community but are often discouraged to not take action. I’ve spoken with Mr. Phelan on numerous occasions about holding strikes and things of that nature, and were often told no. I must say that it’s all about making Chavez look good. They get rid of wonderful teachers like Krakow and keep "bad" teachers because that teacher wrote a few books. I thought the whole purpose of Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy - Capitol Hill Campus was to "develop young people who will make this world a better place by influencing the public policies that affect their communities." I bet you administrators will do everything in their power to make sure this article doesn't create too much buzz.
    SN: Way to go Me. Ferguson!! I agree.

  • Gale Garza

    I am so proud that David stood up for what is right. It is not easy and we live in a time that many are uncertain how to respond to the wrongs around them. Thank you, David, for your courage and belief that educating your students is worth fighting for. No, David Krakow may not be as big as life but it goes to show that one person can and does make a difference.

  • Jen

    It saddens me that a school would rather fire a strong, dedicated teacher and pay a $15,000 settlement than agree to work with staff to improve conditions for teaching and learning. Cheers to DK for fighting for his rights!

  • EB

    I hope that this article will finally bring some attention and action to this issue, and will help to enable teachers at Cesar Chavez to gain the rights they deserve. Please publish it in the print paper! The teachers that I know at CC work incredibly hard every single day, but they are faced with discouragement and a lack of support from administrators. Ultimately, the teachers and the administration should be on the same side working towards the same end goal--a better learning environment for their students. The administration should be supporting their teachers in reaching this end goal instead of continuing to perpetuate a somewhat hostile relationship. Teachers, hang in there and keep on doing the great work you do. There are so many of us out here who admire and support you, even when the administration seems not to.

  • Darin

    Congrats, David, on an important victory. The right to organize is a fundamental right in this country, and it is shameful that a charter school named after one of this country's preeminent labor organizers would so flagrantly violate that right.

  • Wilson

    Not sure if HR lady is really educated and experienced?

  • Janet Isserlsi

    how many teachers do we lose, burn out, toss aside every single year? How *do* we take this machine apart and put it back together properly?

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