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

Milwaukee Carmen union drive shows how charter schools straddle public and private sectors

Outside of a school with snow on the ground
Emily Files
Carmen Northwest middle/high school is one of five schools operated by Carmen Schools of Science and Technology.

Since former Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the law known as Act 10 in 2011, public school unions have seen their collective bargaining rights curtailed.

But a new teachers’ union is in the works that would not be restricted by Act 10.

Employees at Milwaukee’s Carmen charter school network are organizing as a private sector union under federal labor laws, through the National Labor Relations Board.

They’re able to do that because the charter school is publicly funded but run by a private board.

Carmen’s union could be made official next week.

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

The idea behind charter schools is to give schools freedom and flexibility in their operations, so they can innovate and produce better academic results.

In Wisconsin, most charter schools are run by school districts and their teachers are district employees. But there are about 60 independently-run charter schools — most in Milwaukee. They get public funding through contracts with MPS, the city or UWM.

Carmen contracts with MPS and runs five schools in Milwaukee with about 2,000 mostly Latino and Black students.

Preston Green, an educational policy professor at the University of Connecticut, says there is ongoing legal debate about whether charter schools are public or private institutions.

"Courts have had a very difficult time over the years making these distinctions whether charter schools are public or private because the laws may be different depending on the issue," Green says.

When it comes to unionization, a couple important cases out of Chicago determined that charter schools are private employers.

"There’s two big cases essentially, there’s Chicago Math and Science Academy and then the Pilsen Wellness Center," says David Woo, a former Chicago charter school teacher who is now an education policy professor at University of Utah.

Woo says those charter school employees tried to organize under Illinois labor laws. But the charter operators challenged it.

"The ruling in both of those cases was that the National Labor Relations Board agreed that they were private employers," Woo says. "And since, all the charter schools that have organized in Illinois have been as private employees — they go through an NLRB election kind of the same way that this one’s happening in Milwaukee."

If enough Carmen employees vote in favor of the union, it would have powers not afforded to public school employees.

"Under Act 10, the scope of [public sector] bargaining was severely limited to only wages, and wages could only be bargained up to the consumer price index," says UW-Madison labor expert Michael Childers. "Where in the private sector, any of those broad topics — hours, wages, conditions of work, things like vacation — are topics of bargaining that must be discussed between the employer and the worker."

The Carmen employees are organizing with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers rather than an education union. The IAMAW declined an interview for this story because Carmen’s union election is pending.

Childers says that employees can choose any union to represent them, even if it doesn’t seem to align with their profession. One example is Colectivo Coffee employees joining the electrical workers’ union.

"You have pharmacists that are represented with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters," Childers says. "You have graduate students that are part of the United Auto Workers union. It’s not necessarily a big deal which international union they’re affiliated with."

Childers notes that in Carmen’s case, the machinists have more experience with private sector unions than a Wisconsin teachers’ union would.

In Chicago, unionized charter schools were initially separate from the Chicago Teachers' Union. Chris Baehrend, who represents charter school workers on the CTU executive board, says CTU leaders decided around 2010 to invite charter schools into the fold.

"Generally that leadership of [Jesse] Sharkey and [Karen] Lewis took the view that for educators to build power in Chicago, we need to speak with one voice," Baehrend says.

The Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association did not respond to an interview request for this story. In the past, the MTEA has been outspoken against charter schools, saying they weaken traditional public schools by siphoning students.

Carmen would be the first privately-run charter school in Wisconsin to unionize.

"This one, definitely if the workers do vote to form a union, could be a trendsetter like the Buffalo Starbucks has now led to over 100 Starbucks locations across — I think 22 states at this point," Childers says. "So it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out."

The NLRB is holding a mail-in election on the question of certifying the Carmen union. It will count the ballots March 17.

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