12/15/2011 08:23 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2011

Arts Academy In The Woods Teachers Vote To Unionize Charter School

After a six-month organizing drive, teachers at a suburban Detroit charter school voted to unionize on Wednesday, simultaneously certifying a new union local for charter school teachers in Michigan.

Teachers at the Arts Academy in the Woods high school in Fraser approved the new Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Michigan ACTS), a local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, by a vote of 20-1.

The 10-year-old AAW is chartered by the Macomb County Independent School District and is one of the highest performing schools in the county, serving 276 students in grades 9-12. It is only the second charter school to belong to AFT Michigan, but union organizers say it won't be the last.

Phil Cerrasco, an English teacher at the school, was involved in the union campaign and says the new union will approach the bargaining table in a collaborative spirit.

"We've had a lot pay cuts, a lot of insurance cuts," he said. "It hasn't turned us bitter, but it has made us think collectively maybe it's time for us to collaborate more on what's affecting our future and get outside of the classroom."

Since the school has just two administrators and five board members, Cerrasco thinks it will be possible for the entire educational community to work together. "We have a unique opportunity where we don't have to go through action committees and go through a bunch of bureaucracy to effect change," he said.

AAW's board president, Bill Seikaly, said the union vote wouldn't change anything for the school other than who was representing teachers. "We will continue to work collaboratively with the teachers association as we always have," he said.

Seikaly said the board did not dispute that the teachers should be allowed to organize, but that it wished a more open discussion had surrounded the union campaign.

"My sense is that had that occurred there may not have needed to have been a vote," he said. "We may well have simply agreed to them becoming a bargaining unit."

But Nate Walker, an organizer with AFT Michigan who worked on the campaign, said the union election was necessary.

"They reached out to us," Walker said.

The teachers had previously formed a faculty association that acted as a kind of bargaining unit with the school administration and board. But Walker said the teachers found that arrangement insufficient. "They believed while it was an open discussion, it didn't always provide the mechanism to be the decision-maker."

AAW is a relatively small and special school among Michigan's charters, and a union vote there does not necessarily mean the first domino has fallen in a statewide unionization drive. Yet the creation of the charter-focused Michigan ACTS local is seen as a win for AFT.

Big teachers unions, including the Michigan Education Association, have often shied away from organizing charter schools, and charter school proponents tout the lack of collective bargaining as a boon to the schools' flexibility.

But some unions are trying out charter school campaigns. In New York, the United Federation of Teachers has unionized 15 charter schools over the past several years. In Minnesota, teachers unions are even looking to become charter authorizers themselves.

Still, only 12 percent of all charter schools nationwide have collective bargaining agreements. A recent report from the Center for Reinventing Public Education found those contracts often "respect the unique missions and priorities of charter schools, provide teachers with basic protections, and maintain organizational flexibility."

Walker said Michigan ACTS will allow for flexibility and separate contracts between individual charter schools and bargaining units within the local.

The union may have a good deal of organizing work ahead of it. The Michigan House on Wednesday approved legislation that would lift the cap on charter schools in the state and open Michigan to out-of-state and for-profit charter school companies.

"Lifting caps is supposed to provide higher education choices, but we believe that other authorizers seem to be providing those options," Walker said. He added AFT Michigan would not hesitate to bring other charter school teachers into the new local. "Certainly if there's a school where teachers want to form a collective bargaining unit, we'll organize them and help them do that," he said.

Cerrasco, the AAW teacher, said he wouldn't mind opening the union door for teachers in other charter schools. "There's no reason we or any other teachers should not get certain benefits or privileges from the state because we work at a charter school," he said. "If I can help empower other charter school teachers to scrape a little bit of that negative persona off their back, I wouldn't mind doing something like that in the future."