On March 1, teachers won a nine-day charter school strike at Summit Academy in Parma, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Summit Academy serves around 200 K-12 students and is specifically tailored for students with special needs, such as those with ADHD and autism. The workers’ victory at Summit Academy marks the fourth charter school strike in the USA (so far all successful).
Among the concessions won from their employer, the strikers won smaller class sizes, safer working and learning conditions, and better working conditions. Ryan Powers talked with Mike Meyers, an intervention specialist at Summit Academy who served as a union spokesperson and picket team leader during the strike.
Ryan Powers: Tell us a little about yourself and the lead-up to the strike.
Mike Meyers: I’ve been at Summit for nine years. This started in November of 2017 when there was a reduction in force of six staff members. Our small little charter school was tight-knit, and we knew each other quite well, and so that felt like our little family dynamic got exploited. At that time, myself and another teacher contacted the AFT [American Federation of Teachers]. I had zero knowledge of unions or any sort of unionizing. From there we worked things out to a point where we voted to unionize. The starting income at the time was $31,000, and people were concerned if they would have enough money for union dues and if there would be retaliation for unionizing. Fast-forward to this school year: more staffing cuts, class sizes remained large, we had a dirty school with holes in the walls, urine on the floors. Teachers were being asked to clean up bodily fluids.
We’ve been negotiating for a fair contract since May 2018, and in May 2019 it would have expired. They couldn’t guarantee class sizes or staffing. There was some verbiage around trying to create a clean environment, but we couldn’t get binding arbitration in contract.
The management company’s negotiating team was saying to just sign the contract or go work somewhere else. Well, we have a pretty experienced staff. A lot of us had 10, 12 years of experience and weren’t interested in going somewhere else. We liked the community, the school’s policies, working with students with ADHD and autism. It served a good need.
RP: Can you speak a bit more about Summit Academy and the needs it serves?
MM: In Ohio, there are twenty-four of these sorts of alternative learning environments for students with ADHD or an autism spectrum diagnosis. I taught second grade last year and had students who had already been to three schools. Parents have said if there wasn’t Summit Academy, they don’t know where their kid would go to school.
Our main focus was doing this for the students so they could have the small class sizes they signed up for.
RP: Could you talk a bit about the strike itself, what you won, and how you won it?
MM: We were on strike for nine days. I love saying that our efforts on the picket line got us a fair contract. We got good verbage of capping our classes at 18 students, and we also have good wording for properly staffing our classrooms. And we got binding arbitration and a labor-management committee that’s going to help with teachers and the management staff.
We didn’t get any guaranteed wage increase. For me, what we were on strike for was the students, and I think that shows that we were committed to making this school a better place. It wasn’t about meeting our financial demands.
Organizing teachers is very easy. They’re all very organized people. We started group texts, and we had picket captains, and we delegated roles: making signs, someone on the bullhorn, and we had a strike headquarters where we could go for breaks and food. Everyone found a niche where they could contribute in some way to the strike.
We were empowered by our local union leadership who would give us advice, but getting teachers on the line, doing the interviews: we did a lot of that ourselves as the teachers.
Everything was very democratic, too. We voted on if we wanted to go on strike. Even when the contract was presented to us, we voted on the contract. It was really a ‘democracy works!’ kind of moment.
RP: Were you all inspired by the teachers strike wave that started in West Virginia more than a year ago and recently swept its way to Los Angeles, Oakland and Denver?
MM: We were really interested. You can’t really compare LA teachers of 25,000 to our 25 teachers. We knew we wouldn’t be that powerful, but they closed the school for two weeks because they couldn’t run the school without us. So we knew we were powerful as workers. There was a little bit of hope in that we saw it work elsewhere and it gave us confidence.
RP: What would you say you learned from the strike?
MM: I learned that as teachers and workers, united, we are way stronger than we would be divided. Some people at our school are instructional assistants who were not covered by the contract who could unionize. I would encourage them to unionize. I would encourage the other Summit Academies and the other charter schools to unionize. And then they should call me to make sure they get a good contract! More educational workers should try to unionize. There’s a wave coming.
The amount of support from other unions was really impressive. And the Cleveland Teachers Union came, which was really big, especially because there’s a bit of divide between charter schools and public schools.