In Charter Battle, Union Turns to School's Namesake for Help

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A years-long fight over unionization efforts by teachers at a Harlem charter school has crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in South Africa, at the doorstep of one of the famous families the school is named after.

The Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, the first charter school in the city, has been at war with itself since 2010, when teachers at the school formally asked to join the city's teachers union and the school's board of trustees resisted.

Two years later, the trustees and the union are still locked in a bitter fight, each claiming to have the sympathies of the school's teachers. The dispute is before New York State's labor review board. But while the battling continues, the teachers union is trying to win the war of public opinion, and has reached out to the school's namesakes.

The charter school was named for Walter Sisulu, the anti-apartheid activist who died in 2003, and for Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, a former adviser to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who lives in Virginia.

Last month, after being contacted by a family friend with close ties to the United Federation of Teachers, Mr. Sisulu's son, Max Sisulu, the speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, wrote a letter to the school's trustees asking for a ceasefire.

Along with his personal concern that the school might be trying to pressure teachers to opt out of the union, he wrote that the school's attempts to fend off unionization could put the family in a politically awkward position.

"There is no doubt that if South Africa's largest trade union federations, the Congress of South African Trade Union (COSATU) gets wind of this, it will pressure us to request the removal of Walter Sisulu's name from the school," he wrote in a letter dated March 12.

On Monday, Mr. Sisulu's wife, Elinor, said there had been no response to the letter. "We don't know the board's side of the story," she said. "So it's difficult for us to make any conclusions. What we asked was simply that the board resolve the difficulty."

Attempts by the union to reach out to Dr. Walker's family were unsuccessful.

Members of the board of trustees of the Sisulu-Walker Charter School would not comment on Mr. Sisulu's letter or the school's ongoing problems.

In response to a phone call, Minnie Goka, the board's vice-chairwoman, said: "I don't speak with anyone about the school over the phone."

But an official with Victory Education Partners, a for-profit company that managed the school for years and now has a contract for back-office support, said the union was unfairly trying to pressure the board, rather than resolve the dispute in court.

At the core of the two sides' conflict is a disagreement over what the school's teachers truly want. After a group of teachers submitted their initial request to unionize, lawyers for Sisulu-Walker's board countered that some of the teachers were on the school's leadership team and could not legally work under a union contract.

This argument was dismissed, but in January the school's lawyers followed up with eight signed statements from teachers saying they no longer wished to join the union.

The union claims the teachers were pressured to sign the revocation notices, all but one of which are identically worded; the Victory official said the teachers signed them independently.

"Every classic union-busting technique is being used here," said Leo Casey, a vice president of the teachers union. The union is planning a campaign against Victory, he said, motivated by the union's embattled history of trying to organize teachers in charter schools that employ Victory.

Two other charter schools, Merrick Academy in Queens, and the NYC Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries, have connections to Victory and have resisted unionization efforts.

"In every school where Victory is involved, we have problems," Mr. Casey said.

Victory is not anti-union, the company official said, noting that the group has worked with unions in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and with a unionized charter school in Albany called New Covenant, which was closed in 2010.

"To say that victory is anti-union is absolutely absurd," the official wrote in an e-mail. "The UFT is looking for a scapegoat but our history and the facts dispel their BS."

No Sisulu-Walker teachers were willing to be interviewed about the dispute. According to the school's 2011 charter renewal report, compiled by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, the school has suffered from high rates of teacher turnover in recent years -- some years, more than half of the teachers left -- and has had five principals since it was founded in 1999.

Its academic performance has also declined, according to SUNY's review, but the school is still outperforming many of its neighbors in Harlem, and last year the institute voted to renew the school's charter for another five years. The school received a C on its most recent progress report card.