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Queens charter votes to join UFT

New York Teacher

Educators at Elm Community Charter School in Queens overcame resistance from their administration to organize a successful vote to join the UFT on Feb. 7.

"We're very excited and proud," said Casey Neumann, a fine arts teacher at the Flushing school and one of the leaders of the union drive. "We're really committed to the school. We love the parents and families, the children we're working with."

Neumann and some of her colleagues reached out to the UFT through its website and expressed interest in forming a union at their school.

"We're ultimately looking to make the school more sustainable," said Neumann. "We saw a lot of teachers — really quality teachers — leave last year."

Elm's educators faced a heavy workload, difficult schedules, insufficient sick leave, a lack of clarity in job descriptions and insufficient preparation time for classes, according to Neumann.

"We were looking for a platform to express our concerns and make the school a more collaborative endeavor," she said.

The UFT walked Elm's teachers through the process of unionizing and told them what to expect.

"We explained the benefits of joining and the work involved in forming a union and getting a strong, fair and equitable contract," said Scott McMillen, the UFT's lead organizer for the campaign.

Elm's teachers were particularly concerned about having only five days of paid sick leave a year.

"That can be tough when you're working with kids — you get sick," said Neumann. She said when Elm's teachers do call in sick, it's their responsibility to find coverage. "People with a fever or a cough, they're still expected to be on the phone arranging coverage," she said.

The result, she said, was that teachers sometimes came into work sick.

When the union organizers first approached their co-workers, Neumann said, the result was uniformly positive. "When we started, we had 100% backing," she said. "Everybody signed cards" authorizing union representation.

But during the month between turning in their petition for a union in early January and the National Labor Relations Board vote, the school administration began a "campaign to dissuade," said Neumann, even reaching out to parents. Elm's teachers had to combat that misinformation and explain to parents why better working conditions for teachers would help their children.

In the end, Miles Trager, the UFT's negotiations coordinator for charter schools, said a supermajority of eligible staff members still voted to join the UFT despite management's anti-union campaign.

"They wanted a voice in the school, and that need prevailed," he said.