Staff announce union drives at two Twin Cities charter schools

Teachers from Great River and Hiawatha announce their union campaigns during a video conference with Education Minnesota.

Staff at two Twin Cities charter schools kicked off Teacher Appreciation Week yesterday by filing for recognition of their unions.

Teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff from Great River School in St. Paul and Hiawatha Academies in Minneapolis went public with their campaigns after filing signed authorization cards with the National Labor Relations Board, triggering the union-election process.

But employees at both schools will push administrators and board members in the coming days to recognize their unions voluntarily, bypass the NLRB and get to work on first collective bargaining agreements that will strengthen their learning communities.

“We are all incredibly proud and honored to be working with the amazing staff, families and students who really make our school run,” said Janiru Herath, a teacher at Hiawatha College Prep – Kingfield. “Through unionizing, we can have a seat at the table in which the decision-making process includes all voices.”

About 70% of workers eligible for the bargaining units have signed cards, according to Education Minnesota, the union of 89,000 education workers statewide, which is supporting both organizing drives.

The bargaining units would bring together as many as 122 school employees at Great River and 202 at Hiawatha.

A bridge to support students

In a discussion streamed live on Education Minnesota’s Facebook page yesterday, Herath and other union supporters laid out their reasons for pursuing a collective voice at their schools. Each of the speakers said a union would increase staff members’ power to advocate for themselves and their students.

Great River’s Sarah Garton likened forming a union to building a bridge between staff and the school’s administration, so the two groups work together better. That would only benefit students, Hiawatha’s Tory Waggoner agreed.

“Students are the center of everything we do,” Waggoner said. “By prioritizing the voice of the people who work most closely with them, we can improve student outcomes and increase the satisfaction of workers as well.”

Growth at the schools has factored into workers’ decision to organize, too. Since the school’s founding in 2007, Hiawatha has expanded from a single elementary campus into a network of one elementary school, two middle schools and one high school. Great River, a first- through 12th-grade Montessori school on Energy Park Drive, has grown in recent years, too.

Great River teacher Nadine McNiff said growth is an opportunity “to expand what is working and improve what isn’t,” and a having a union will ensure staff members are part of that process.

“One thing that’s really important is continuity and foundation,” McNiff said. “Especially through a time of growth and changes at Great River, a union offers support for those things.”

Staff members at Great River, McNiff added, strive to create “space and structures that give students agency and voice.” And what better way to model the importance of exercising agency and voice than by forming a union?

“Our hopes are that unionizing and having that consistency in place, having that stability in place, can really help with maintaining working conditions that can feel supportive to workers, so they can focus and really invest their energies and thoughts on connections with students,” McNiff said.

Unions gaining favor

Charter schools are publicly funded but exempt from some state laws in order to increase flexibility, autonomy and innovation.

Minnesota is considered the birthplace of charter schools, having passed a first-in-the-nation law establishing their framework in 1991. Now, 168 charter schools serve about 68,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students statewide.

Teachers at the Twin Cities German Immersion School in St. Paul formed the state’s first charter-school union in 2014. Currently, Education Minnesota represents four bargaining units at three charter schools.

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