In victory for staff, charter acknowledges workers’ union rights – in three languages

Community School of Excellence is a charter school focused on Hmong language and culture in St. Paul's North End.

Community School of Excellence is a charter school focused on Hmong language and culture in St. Paul’s North End.

Staff at Community School of Excellence in St. Paul, still fighting for a first contract more than a year after organizing their union, have compelled Superintendent Mo Chang to acknowledge her administration infringed on workers’ legally protected rights on the job.

The admission comes in a notice to all employees, signed by Chang, affirming CSE employees’ legally protected rights to union representation and to engage in collective action for better wages and working conditions.

Posted Friday in English, Hmong and Karenni, the notice (view PDF) reiterates for staff members of all cultural backgrounds “that the federal government and the National Labor Relations Act are advocating for them,” CSE teacher Eric Johnson said.

CSE, located in St. Paul’s North End neighborhood, is a charter school focused on Hmong language and culture. About 100 teachers and other staff members voted in June 2014 to join the Federation of Charter School Employees, an affiliate of Education Minnesota.

“I don’t know many other situations where you’ve got notices like this to employees in these specific Southeast Asian languages,” Johnson added. “It’s a step forward in educating a variety of immigrant groups about how unionization can help them.”

CSE agreed to post the notice as part of a settlement agreement stemming from charges of unfair labor practices filed by CSE employees last winter. The Minneapolis regional office of the National Labor Relations Board approved the settlement last month.

The notice references interactions between workers and management last school year, after employees voted to unionize, and it provides a glimpse into the backlash workers faced for publicly supporting the organizing drive. For example:

“We will not threaten employees that their comments are appalling because they exercise their right to discuss or protest working conditions with employees, or because they publicize labor disputes at meetings with third parties.”

As part of the settlement, CSE agreed to “engage in further training” on workers’ rights under federal law, provided by the Minneapolis branch of the NLRB. And the district rescinded disciplinary actions against four pro-union employees, including Johnson, who is now president of the Federation of Charter School Employees.

“Because a lot of the events coincided with unionization, including reprimands of union leadership, we felt these things were all just too coincidental and seemed to be retaliatory,” Johnson said. “But as a union these issues now have been resolved, and we look forward to negotiating a first contract with the school.”

The two sides have held six negotiating sessions, and they plan to meet regularly until reaching a tentative agreement, according to Johnson.

CSE is one of two unionized charter schools in St. Paul. Teachers at the Twin Cities German Immersion School, who voted for union representation in January 2014, approved a first contract earlier this school year.

When union members at CSE have a tentative agreement of their own to vote on, Johnson said, “we’ll continue to legitimize charter school unions in Minnesota.”

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