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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

'It gives us an actual seat at the table': Milwaukee Carmen charter school teachers seek to unionize

Carmen School of Science and Technology operates five schools, including this high school/middle school in northwest Milwaukee.
Emily Files
Carmen Schools of Science and Technology operates five schools, including this high school/middle school in northwest Milwaukee.

Teachers at a prominent Milwaukee charter school network are attempting to unionize.

Carmen Schools of Science and Technology employees filed a union election petition with the National Labor Relations Board this week.

Carmen operates five Milwaukee schools, mainly on the south side, with about 2,000 mostly Latino and Black students.

A major problem cited by Carmen employees who want to unionize is high teacher turnover.

One of the teachers Carmen lost is Julia, who requested that her last name not be published to protect her privacy. Julia came to Carmen Northwest High School in 2019 as a novice teacher. She said she earned $40,000 and was overloaded with work.

"I was showing up to work at 7 a.m. every morning and usually not leaving until well after 5:30," she said. "In the wintertime, I don't think I ever got to see daylight, just because there was so much to do outside of the contractual school hours."

Julia said she had three separate classes to prep: an unusually high workload. She and other teachers also served as advisors to students because the school didn't have guidance counselors.

"I liked being an advisor to my students, but I didn’t like all the extra work that was added on to it when I knew that in other schools, these same stressors weren’t put on teachers," Julia said.

Despite her love for her students, Julia left Carmen after one year. She now works at a suburban district where her pay increased by 25%.

A current Carmen Northwest teacher, Alexis Garcia, has similar concerns about being overworked and underpaid. She has been active in the union drive.

"It gives us an actual seat at the table, not a fictitious one that we've been given for so long," Garcia said. "It allows us to advocate for ourselves instead of being told 'This is what you need or this is what you should do.' And I hope the union is successful because these kids deserve so much more, and they're being given the short end of the stick year after year because of this high teacher turnover."

The vast majority of charter schools across the country are not unionized. Charters are publicly-funded but privately-run schools given more autonomy in exchange for higher academic performance.

WUWM Education Reporter Emily Files speaks with University of Texas-Austin educational policy professor Huriya Jabbar, who co-authored a report on why charter schools unionize.

According to Center on Reinventing Public Education founder and political scientist Paul Hill, unionization is seen as potentially limiting the innovation and flexibility that make charter schools unique.

Hill said, when charters do unionize, it’s usually because of a breakdown in trust between staff and administrators.

"Sometimes charter schools start with a kind of almost religious fervor, and the people who run them and operate and teach in them expect to work hugely long hours and take huge amounts of responsibility," Hill said. "And after a while, people burn out, or they get replaced by people who have more reasonable expectations, and they want to see if they can get the charter school to run in a more normal way."

Carmen employees are working with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. Joining the machinist’s union would give Carmen staff collective bargaining rights that were stripped from teachers’ unions by Act 10, the law that curtailed public unions’ powers.

The IAMAW did not respond to questions from WUWM about why Carmen workers chose their union instead of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association or another education union, though there is a fraught history between the MTEA and charter schools. The MTEA also did not respond to a request for comment.

According to the Carmen Collective website, the National Labor Relations Board should schedule a union election to take place in the next couple of months.

Even if it’s successful, it won’t be enough to keep teacher Alexis Garcia at Carmen. She’s made up her mind to leave.

"I've just been worn out to the point where I resent getting up in the morning," Garcia said. "I don't want to come to school. The only reason I get out of bed is for my students. But that can't be the only reason. We're not martyrs. We're teachers."

WUWM asked Carmen CEO Jennifer Lopez to respond to employee concerns and to provide data on staff turnover and salaries. Lopez declined to answer questions, but in a statement, said she respects the right of each employee to decide whether to unionize.

"At Carmen, we value the voice of teachers, staff, and broader community and work continually to ensure that voice is incorporated into our policies and practices," Lopez wrote. "We respect the rights of our staff to unionize or not unionize. Each individual should have the opportunity to make a fully informed, personal choice about this important issue."

According to staff, Lopez has been critical of the effort internally.

Carmen isn’t the only Milwaukee organization where workers have recently mobilized. Colectivo cafe workers voted to unionize in August.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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