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National labor board rules that two charter schools in New Orleans can be unionized

The National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday that two charter schools in New Orleans are subject to federal law on unionization.

It could clear the way for unions representing staff at International High School of New Orleans and teachers’ aides at Lusher Charter School to begin bargaining with their respective charter boards — if the boards do not take the matter to court.

Employees at both schools launched union drives last spring and asked the boards to voluntarily recognize their unions. When that failed, they asked the National Labor Relations Board to hold elections.

At International High School, teachers and aides voted in favor of union representation. At Lusher, teachers voted it down, but a smaller group of employees mostly made up of teachers’ aides voted for union representation.

Both charter boards challenged rulings by the regional labor board director that they are subject to the labor board’s jurisdiction. They argued they are exempt because they are governmental entities.

Today’s rulings, from the labor board in Washington, D.C., said the schools are not exempt from the National Labor Relations Act. It based the decisions in part on rulings regarding charter schools in Pennsylvania and New York, which have similar legal structures as those in Louisiana.

One member of the board dissented in each ruling, saying the New Orleans charter boards are equivalent to public school boards and are political subdivisions of state government.

Jim Randels, president of United Teachers of New Orleans, called the rulings a “victory for public education in New Orleans.” He said the rulings will allow teachers to work more closely with school administrators.

Earlier this year, Lusher administrators contended that a union would divide teachers and school leaders and that the union was unnecessary because charter schools already offer a uniquely close line of communication.

Lusher attorney Mag Bickford did not immediately return a call for comment.

International High School attorney Brooke Duncan issued this statement: “We continue to maintain that IHSNO as a charter school is not subject to jurisdiction under the National Labor Relations Act, as the acting chair of the National Labor Relations Board made clear in his dissent, and we expect the courts will eventually decide the issue.”

He said collective-bargaining negotiations at International will not begin anytime soon.

The union filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board last summer, which was put on hold until Wednesday’s ruling.

Now that complaint will proceed, starting with a hearing at the regional board. Duncan said it could go back to the national board. After that, International could bring the matter to a federal appeals court.

Only two collective bargaining agreements for public teachers have been negotiated in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Public school teachers were fired after the storm because there were no students. Since then, almost all the schools in the city have become charters.

Teachers at Benjamin Franklin High School negotiated a contract in 2015. Morris Jeff Community School negotiated a three-year contract with its union in June.

Brad Richard is a teacher and head of the creative writing program at Lusher. He is a member of United Teachers of Lusher.

“United Teachers of Lusher couldn’t be more pleased by the NLRB’s ruling, which vindicates charter school teachers who act on their legal right to pursue collective bargaining,” Richard said.

This story was updated to include additional comments from Brooke Duncan. (Feb. 3, 2017)

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