By Kimberly Crane
The crowd in Room 101 craved fresh air and resolution as officials from the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) opened ballots at the Academy of Urban Leadership Charter School (AULCS) in Perth Amboy.
“Twenty-five for each side with three contested votes,” the ballot counter announced. “At the moment, we have a tie.”
An uncomfortable shuffling of the group indicated a mental groan from both sides of the vote. It wasn’t over.
The Academy of Urban Leadership Education Association (AULEA) faced decertification on Dec. 18, 2017, just a year and eight months after unionizing. A contested vote would decide their fate.
In 2016, new school leadership arrived at AULCS with a rumored bad reputation pertaining to staff equity. Soon after, a teacher new to the charter school was hired at a salary above that of most veteran staff. This inequity and others led to grumbling among colleagues and the idea of forming a union took hold.
A sizable majority of AULCS staff signed cards in 2016 to indicate their desire to unionize. On March 31, 2016, NJEA filed a certification request with PERC and the AULEA was born. That was the last easy action for the local association. The following year brought troubled negotiations with conflicts over the smallest points of contract language and uncompromising board opposition to any salary guides put forward by the union.
Administration was suspected of using divisionary tactics as a decertification movement grew. There was a growing fear of retaliation among AULEA members. The uncertain climate forced an AULCS high school social studies teacher, Rose Ann Berberich, to make difficult choices.
Berberich arrived at AULCS in 2010, the school’s inaugural year. One of the first questions she asked was if the staff was part of NJEA. She received a frosty response from school leadership and was told, “No. We will never have a union here.”
But by 2018, Berberich had become president of the union that AULCS leaders insisted would never exist.
“People knew I was union supportive, but I initially said that couldn’t be president because I was focusing on my family,” Berberich recalled.
That changed when two former AULEA presidents left the district. Berberich stepped up, refusing to let her union deteriorate without a leader. She is one of only three teachers who were hired by AULCS at its inception that remain at the school. Nonetheless, she has built close relationships with her colleagues and students over the last eight years. Some of those relationships were tested by her decision to become a union activist and leader.
School officials encouraged a campaign to destroy the local association, and they were gaining ground. Berberich began to doubt her convictions as she watched this battle unfold around her. Her closest colleagues were on the other side, and they believed that she was putting herself at risk.
“You need to distance yourself from the union,” said Berberich’s best friend. “I’m only trying to look out for you.”
Berberich was fearful of losing her job, her students, and her friends. She didn’t know what to do.
“I worried that I was the lone person who supported the union,” Berberich recalled. “Then the petition to decertification happened in May of 2017, and I was really on the fence.”
To maintain the right to represent members’ interests, a majority of eligible union members must vote “yes” if a decertification vote is called. Votes that are contested by either side remain sealed until PERC reaches a decision on their validity. AULEA had three contested votes. PERC quickly rejected two of those ballots based on the eligibility of the individuals voting. One tie-breaking vote remained.
“The important thing to remember about decertification movements is that they are usually encouraged by a hostile administration seeking to break the union,” said Brian Furry, the NJEA UniServ Field Representative assigned to AULEA. “Administration encourages members to sign the petition by making false promises about how great it would be without the union getting in the way. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
AULCS’s school leadership allegedly held meetings with decertification supporters.
“It was reported to us that they were very careful of their wording in these meetings,” said Berberich. “They promised to create a more ‘balanced’ salary guide if the union was gone. They told AULEA members that the union was the reason they couldn’t change the salary guides immediately because negotiations was holding up the process. Yet, at the bargaining table it was administration that was being unreasonable.”
“I see a renewed sense of passion and purpose in my colleagues now because of our union. I am so proud and thankful to have had the opportunity to represent our members.”
“Rose Ann, I have known you for many years—you are not anti-union,” said a colleague that Berberich describes as her sounding board.
It was a conversation that moved Berberich into a state of self-reflection. As a result, Berberich realized that she would be going against every moral belief that she had ever held if she supported the decertification.
“This decertification conflict was a representation of what has been going on between workers and employers in this country for 100 years,” said Berberich. “I couldn’t let anti-unionism win.”
She further reflected that her decision was less about thwarting administration and more about building a union family. “Administrators come and go. We are here for the long haul.”
Stephanie Valenti, a middle school language arts teacher at AULCS, felt the full support of union membership when the local association in her former district helped her win a conflict. She was pleased to find that her new charter school had a union.
Unfortunately, the good vibe did not last. Valenti realized quickly that the administration and association did not see eye to eye.
“Information was given that blamed the union for a long work day, poor salaries, and a 190-day school year,” she said. “I knew from past experience that unions don’t work that way. Something was very wrong here.”
A letter from AULEA requesting help and member support moved her to act.
“The letter outlined a few facts about our declining working conditions and high turnover, which everyone knows is bad for students,” said Valenti. “The letter really resonated with me so I phoned one of the contacts listed to see how I could help.”
Region 11/12 UniServ Consultant Ted Tympanick was the voice on the other end of the line. He worked closely with AULEA to organize one-to-one conversations with members and assess their immediate needs.
“Ted had excellent advice on how to learn what is most important to our members in their work environment,” said Valenti. “He gave me strategies on how to represent our union in a positive and factual manner. I used those strategies when speaking to my colleagues.”
Berberich credits Valenti with giving her the final inspiration she needed to fight the decertification.
“I went to a meeting of the decertification supporters,” said Berberich. “Stephanie spoke passionately in support of the union at that meeting. I thought that most of the union-supportive staff had left the district. She gave me heart.”
Both the union and school officials launched aggressive public relations campaigns as the vote got closer. AULCS’s lead administrator, Nestor Collazo, wrote a memo to staff that stated if the decertification went through, NJEA “…will no longer have control over your work lives at AUL.” The letter was viewed as arrogant and hostile by many members whose vote was previously undecided. It was enough to push many of them to vote yes for their union.
Valenti literally stepped up to the table during the decertification vote. She was the association’s designated representative at the ballot counting and stood as the local’s witness to the PERC process.
The last contested AULEA vote was legitimized by PERC. On Jan. 19, at 2:08 p.m. that vote was opened in PERC’s offices. The vote was in favor of the union and majority status was upheld. The deadline to challenge PERC’s decision on the decertification passed quietly. The process of re-build unity has begun.
“You will find that major movements are started by one significant element,” said Marguerite Schroeder, the NJEA organizing field representative working with AULEA. “In this case, the power of one vote strengthened the backbone of the rest of this group and gave them the courage to come on board.”
Schroeder is referring to the fact that in the few weeks since PERC ruled in the association’s favor, members who had previously supported decertification switched camps and are approaching association leadership to ask how they can get involved. NJEA has several professional development sessions scheduled for AULEA members, and support for the association is growing every day.
Valenti recalls the day she found out the association won.
“I was ecstatic,” she said.
Berberich said that she now looks forward to fair and civil negotiations.
“I look forward to the chance for our members to come together and embrace being a union family instead of fearing it,” Berberich concluded thoughtfully. “I can’t wait to show them the great things that we have the opportunity to do together.”
Kimberly Crane is an NJEA Communications Consultant and the vice president of the Highland Park Education Association. She previously served as HPEA president.