DETROIT - If the Lansing Tea Party Republicans who passed Right-to-Work (for less) legislation last week thought working families were going to be intimidated, they should have witnessed what took place last night at the Cesar Chavez Academy, a large for-profit, K-12 charter school in Southwest Detroit.
Despite a cool rain verging on snow, and the decision by the Leona group to close the school early to discourage parents from attending, a huge outpouring of parents, students and the community rallied to support teachers in their decision to be represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
The school is operated by the Leona group, one of the nation's largest for-profit school corporations.
Rob Timberlake, a third year English teacher, said teachers were sending a very positive message that "workers do have the right to choose a union and teachers should have a voice in how the schools are structured."
What is it like for teachers at the school? Third grade teachers Katie Kippdohm and Christina Rivera said they are not on a pay scale (each teacher negotiates their individual pay), they are required to get Masters degrees but see no increase in pay, and they all struggle to pay off their student loans.
At a rally in front of the school, Florademaria Garay, a social worker with 12 years of experience in the school, said the issue of pay affects the quality of teaching. "I have seen too many of my colleagues who are great educators leave for other districts."
She also wanted teachers free from "intimidation" and "repercussions" to advocate for a higher quality of education for their students including individual instruction and bilingual education. "Most important to all of us, is our students," she said.
Those remarks were seconded by Brenda, a parent, who said to the teachers, "We are in this together; we look forward to better conditions for our kids. You are not alone."
AFT President David Hecker welcomed the teachers at the 2100 student complex into the AFT family saying, "We hope the Leona group agrees to a vote as soon as possible. And we hope the kind of voter suppression that we see in all too many communities of color does not go on here. After all this is the Cesar Chavez Academy," he said referring to the late civil rights and trade union leader the school is named after.
Special Education Teacher Toni Carlbom added, "The overwhelming majority want a union. Last week I heard our governor say he respects workers choices, well, we made our choice and it was a resounding yes, now they need to respect it."
United Autoworkers Vice President Cindy Estrada said it is "meaningless to honor a school in name; we need to honor it in action."
She said this is about what Cesar Chavez would have wanted. "He wanted workers to have a voice. He wanted them to have dignity. Especially in schools."
She then read greetings addressed to the community from Arturo Rodriguez, the current president of the United Farm Workers Union and son-in-law of Cesar Chavez. The statement read in part, "Cesar Chavez was a champion not only for the Latino community but for the working class in our country. I am very pleased to hear you have decided to honor his legacy by forming a union at your school."
Photo: (PW/John Rummel)