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Jun 2, 2022
Featured Music (all songs sourced from the Free Music Archive: freemusicarchive.org ) Jules Taylor, “Working People Theme Song TRANSCRIPT Tyler Powles: My name is Tyler Powles, I was a fourth grade teacher at Caliber Beta Academy for five years. It was the third through seventh year of the school’s existence. During that time I was a grade team lead, I wrote the science curriculum for third, fourth, and fifth grade. I was a mentor teacher for people that Caliber schools was trying to put on track to be employees at the school and teachers at the school. And I was president of the school site council for three years. Erinn Murphy: My name is Erinn Murphy, I am currently an education specialist at Caliber Changemakers Academy. I am also a parent at Caliber ChangeMakers Academy. And I am not from Vallejo, California, but I am a native Californian. Maximillian Alvarez: All right, well welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you. As you all heard, we’ve got Tyler and Erinn on the call today for an important discussion about an important struggle that you all may not have heard about, but we want to make sure that everyone knows about this because I think it’s really significant, a really important story. Tyler and Erinn are going to walk us through that. But as you heard, Tyler was teaching for a number of years, and Erinn is teaching currently at the Caliber charter schools network in California, which includes the Caliber Beta Academy in Richmond, California, and Caliber ChangeMakers in Vallejo, California. There’s a whole backstory that we’re going to dig into here about the effort to unionize teachers and support staff and educational administrative staff at these charter schools in California. Workers there have voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. You guys know we got a lot of love for the Wobblies, and they have a really rich and incredible tradition in this country. Couple years back, we interviewed a worker at Burgerville in Portland who also unionized with the IWW. We’re going to dig into all of that and make sure you all know about this important struggle, because it has been a struggle. From working during COVID and folks really putting on the administration’s list of priorities, the concerns that workers have been raising about staff retention, about the school living up to its “core values.” You guys know that charter schools love to talk a big game about their core values, but that often does not translate to the ways that they treat their students or their employees. I would call this a spiritual sequel to the episode we actually did with my sister McKenna Alvarez a couple seasons ago, where we talked about the core values at the charter school she was working at and how little those translated to the way that the school treated its workers and its students. We’re picking up in that vein, but I think what’s really significant here is that unlike the workers at my sister’s school, workers at Caliber Public Schools, this charter school network, really banded together and decided to do something about it. From what I’ve been reading and hearing, the school has been fighting them every step of the way. Big surprise there. But it seems like there’s some really hopeful light at the end of this tunnel. We’re going to dig into all of that, and we’re going to include links in the show notes for you all so that you can read a little more about what’s going on at Caliber Public Schools in California. But with all that out of the way, before we really dive into the union drive and, Tyler and Erinn, the involvement that you all have had in that, I was wondering if we could, in the Working People tradition, get to know a little more about you both and your paths into becoming educators and coming to work at Caliber. Tyler, why don’t we start with you? Tyler Powles: Sure. My path towards working at Caliber, I think, in some ways started when I was attending college in Boston. But at a certain point, I think it also traces back towards when I reflected all of the work experience I really had prior involved working alongside kids in some ways. I was a camp counselor back in New Jersey, where I grew up, for several summers. I got a volunteer job teaching therapeutic horseback riding lessons for children who were using it to either strengthen their muscles because they had a physical condition, or using it for social, emotional support in so many ways. And before my first class, my first semester in Boston at Emerson College, I had actually already enlisted in AmeriCorps to join an organization called Jumpstart, which teaches language and literacy skills to preschoolers, largely in low income areas, be them rural areas or often in inner city or urban areas. I was in Roxbury and Dorchester, two neighborhoods in the outer ring of Boston, for all of my years in college. I started as a core member and we’re in classrooms helping support the activities of Jumpstart and implement the curriculum, then eventually weaved my way through a lot of different roles in that program. I was a team leader, so later led a team of core members. I eventually became a program assistant and helped do the interviewing and the training and the hiring for all the core members at that school site. As an internship, actually went to Jumpstart’s national headquarters and got experience helping them in rewriting their curriculum for it to be piloted the following year, and got to know a little bit more about the organizational structure and also what type of research and skills go into creating curriculum versus actually implementing curriculum in a classroom setting. Even the semester I studied abroad, we were in this little village in the Netherlands, and many children in the Netherlands grow up bilingually, and there was a local preschool there. So I arranged for the head of the study abroad program to start a volunteer program in which we could get some of the predominantly English as first language American students who were there more immersed in the local culture by trying to do some volunteering or TAing in the local preschool classrooms. At the time, while I was doing all of that, I don’t think I actually saw myself necessarily explicitly going into education. I was majoring in writing and literature, and previously had been at a crossroads between potentially majoring in a science or doing the writing and literature path, which I ended up doing. And for a while I thought I might end up in higher education, perhaps getting a PhD and trying to become a professor. Then someone I knew from the national headquarters of Jumpstart wanted to set me up with a recruiter from Teach for America. I had heard many things about Teach for America, many of which were not overwhelmingly positive, and frankly, I wasn’t all that interested in doing it. But they were very persuasive in saying, just talk with them, they’ll meet you for coffee. They’ll just tell you a little bit about the program. I did so, and still wasn’t that all enthused, but went to their day-long interview process, and did a mock lesson, and went through their steps, and was placed in the Bay Area, California, which is a place that I have for a while in my life been very fascinated in for a cultural level, and largely a music level because of the music that I grew up enjoying. When I really had to pause and reflect about whether or not to take this opportunity, I realized how much of my work and how much of my own motivation and passion had been involved in working alongside children, and thought about the prospect of moving to this new place and trying to experience that. Ultimately, I decided to accept that opportunity. And through becoming a part of Teach for America, I was very quickly also a part of Caliber Beta Academy, because I taught summer school that summer in Oakland. Was living in San Jose while doing the so-called institute or training through Teach for America, and Caliber was quick to interview me based on my resume and even explicitly said, one of the school leaders in the interview process, we really like you and we want to make sure we can get an offer to you before you get other offers. I did about four interviews with different people at Caliber in the course of a day and a half, and they basically fast tracked me to becoming a part of the school. Which, in hindsight, might not have been the most inspiring sign, but I would later find out that year just how strapped for teaching staff Caliber Beta Academy actually was. But I was really enthusiastic in that moment and through those initial interviews because I saw the website and I saw those core values that you already alluded to and the vision that they were setting out. My understanding was that if they were really trying to implement that vision that it would be a really unique and inspiring place to get to be a part of. So I entered my time at Caliber with really high hopes and a lot of enthusiasm to get to join in that workforce and get to become part of that community. Erinn Murphy: I’m so glad to finally hear the beginning of that story, Tyler, because I really only knew the end of it. The ending was not great. I mean, it’s not your ending, but you know what I mean. I would like to start at the very beginning for myself, that I was a farmer’s daughter in the poorest county in California. I grew up in a place where people either stayed there forever or they went to college. I was determined I was going to be one of the ones that went to college. Luckily, as soon as I was going to school, I knew that I loved it, and I just loved reading. Pretty soon I realized that not everybody loves reading and it’s hard for some people. And so by the time I was in third grade, I said to my teachers, I really want to do this too. For the rest of my educational experience, they said, Erinn, please do something else. You can do so many great things. Don’t do this, it’s a hard job. You don’t want it. I always try to listen to my teachers, but I really wanted to be an English teacher. So I went to Sacramento State University, I got my English pre-credential BA, I went to a credential program that had a strong focus on multicultural education because that was important to me. And my first full-time job that I accepted was at a public charter school, actually. They didn’t call it that, they called it a theme school at the time. And this theme school was focused around public safety. I worked there for two years and I did a lot for that school. I really gave them my all. I did all the adjunct duty. At the time, I was newly a single mom, so I really couldn’t be staying until 6:00 at night, but I did it anyway. I started a theater program for them, and a lot of extra things to try and make things better for the kids there. At the end of my second year, they were already on their third principal. Even though all of my evaluations had been outstanding, she said, I just don’t really like your classroom management. So, mm, I don’t think I want to keep you on because then you’ll have tenure. At that point I already hated working for her so I said, you know what? I think let’s just make this a quit. That was my transition into my next situation. I decided that I was going to just call it quits, join AmeriCorps. I did a year in AmeriCorps. It was amazing, and that’s because we had a great program coordinator. I had a stipend which I could use to pay the bills, but it’s not a salary. I had an amazing experience getting to work with some school leaders and be a mentor. Also, I got to do, fortunately, a lot of substitute teaching because I already had a clear credential. During that time I was able to reassess, readjust, and figure out where I wanted to go next. The next logical step for me was to move closer to the Bay Area. So my next teaching assignment was in Napa, and this job that I took was AVID and ELD. That was a great year because I really loved working there. It was a great team. The admin was okay, but unfortunately, because so many of the students are being pulled to private schools or they’re trying to condense all the public schools, that was one of the ones where they were reducing enrollment. Because in Napa, all the families that can afford to send their kids to private schools. Anyway, I was last hired, so they gave us a lot of notice that the new hires are going to be pink slipped at the end of the year. That was fine, because that was a great experience and it gave me a lot of time to look at where I wanted to go next. When I was looking at all these different options, I really wanted to stay in the Bay Area. I wanted to serve the underserved kids, the kids like how I grew up. I really wanted to work at a school where I could work with emotionally disturbed students. And fortunately Fairfield, that unified, did recognize my name, and when they saw that I was looking to come back they were eager to hire me. They were also eager to let me pursue a special education credential. So I worked for a year at not a non-public school, but the last step before a non-public school. This was a separate site for students who cannot be around the general population. They had three pods there, and the one that I was in was specifically for high school emotionally disturbed children. That was quite a learning experience for me. I can’t say that it was fun to have to basically work in a prison for kids and always having to make sure we had three people in a room, no kid ever left alone. You had to escort them to the bathroom. But when you actually get to talk to them, when they’re in a space to talk, you learn a lot. From that point, I would’ve been happy to stay there, but that site was closing also. So my principal said, well, we’ll find a job for you here. But I said, no, it’s good. I will find myself a job, and that was when I decided to apply at Caliber. I immediately thought, oh, God, another public charter school. But maybe this one’s different. When I met the principal and I met the program coordinator, I thought, okay, this is a place where, even if it’s going to be the same pattern, I’m going to enjoy my time here. When they hired me on, I was excited, I had a great first year. The second year was COVID, so it was boring and I hated it, but we got through it. Then my third year is this year, which was just really disappointing, because… I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but I started seeing the same patterns again. I knew that Beta Academy had already unionized, and I didn’t want to join a union. I’m not anti-union, but I don’t have time. I’ve been to union meetings. I don’t want to sit around listening to people talk about how bad it is to be a teacher. I only want to talk to people who want to find solutions. I think what really did it for me was having three people let go so quickly, because I don’t think that there’s any other way to fix a bad administration. When they say that we are trying to meet them halfway, and we want to fix things and make it better for the teachers, but then they don’t follow through with their actions, then it’s time to actually form a union. Maximillian Alvarez: Man, and it’s just that creeping sense that something needs to be done. I mean, I promise that this question has a point, but have either of you guys seen… Shit, what is that movie? Shaun of the Dead, the zombie movie? Erinn Murphy: Yes. Maximillian Alvarez: I ask because I think it’s a really great way that they set up the movie where the guy, Shaun, he goes through his daily routine and you start to notice in the background that something’s going wrong. He walks to the liquor store and in the background a car has crashed and a body’s hanging out. Or a fire hydrant is going off in the street. You just get these little clues that society is crumbling, but Shaun hasn’t really realized it yet. I was getting that sense, just hearing both of you talk. I mean, it’s something that I’ve heard educators in different schools around the country describe similar things. It’s like, I’m listening to both of you talk about your incredible paths to becoming the incredible educators that you are. And yet at every step, I’m seeing those little details like in Shaun of the Dead where you’re saying like, the school I was at was closing or downsizing. Or, teachers weren’t being retained. The teachers who were there were telling me, don’t do this. Don’t be a teacher. Don’t go into the education profession, even when you yourself were a student. I just really wanted to impress upon folks listening here that maybe you don’t have kids in school, maybe you don’t know many educators, maybe you’re thinking about education based on what it was like when you went to school. But I hope that you recognize from listening to Erinn and Tyler and the other educators that we’ve talked to on this show and the interviews that I’ve done at The Real News, something is wrong here. I guess I just wanted to ask you guys that, if you’re comfortable with it, maybe for folks who just haven’t been in a school system in a long time, am I off base there? Would you agree that there’s something rotten in this landscape that maybe folks out there aren’t seeing if they don’t have kids going to school right now? Erinn Murphy: I think that it’s nice to think that there’s something rotten that wasn’t rotten from the beginning. But I mean, if you look at the history of education in America, nothing’s really changed. The change, maybe, if anything, has come from more men joining the profession, which is great because nobody wants to sit around with a bunch of kids all day. So for a long time, it was women’s work. Of course, anything that a woman will do, you can pay them less. I think that really the shift came when more men started teaching. Tyler Powles: Observing that, it seems like the crisis of actually having enough people to work in education seems like it’s worsening, which might not be a necessarily fundamental change, because it’s more an exacerbation of an existing problem. But I think that is an increasingly urgent crisis, and organizations like Teach for America, there’s a band aid solution to funnel people into areas where it is hardest to get people employed in the first place. Although, I would also say that charter schools, although not necessarily a brand new concept, their growth seems to be changing, if not the fundamental operation of the inside of a classroom, it’s changing who may be involved in governing education and why. I think that the Caliber schools is a prime example of that because they were founded by Ron Beller and Jen Moses. Not to go too deep into their backgrounds because I don’t want to speak too much for them, but Jen, by the third year of the school, which was my first year working there, Jen Moses was still the CEO. And Ron, who had been very present in board meetings advocating for a school because Beta Academy still doesn’t have a building as of this year, it’s just a series of trailers behind the high school of a different public school, a Richmond public school named Kennedy. Ron was a voice at the board meetings and still sits on the Caliber school’s board, as does Jen. But in their previous life, prior to Caliber Public Schools, Jen Moses, for example, spent about 11 years as a managing director of Goldman Sachs. Up until 2011 she was a political advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown over in England and – Maximillian Alvarez: Wait, wait, really? Tyler Powles: – As of 2021, I see that she has been appointed to Rothschild & Co as a member of its supervisory board. So in addition to being the chair of Caliber Public Schools, it appears, congratulations, Jen, she is now working for Rothschild & Co. So the idea that folks like them want to get involved in owning and operating schools seems to be something that is relatively new or at least more accessible because of the charter school reality that we’re facing. Erinn Murphy: That’s such a good point, which makes me think about when I think about how money is spent between these two campuses and that’s always a thing that charter schools get in trouble for. It’s not just, we started with all these big promises and we couldn’t follow through with it. It’s also, what did you guys actually do with the money? Because there’s another charter system in Vallejo that is about to lose their charter, and it’s because money was mismanaged. If you’re given some buildings to use that are already old and you say, oh, we’re going to buy new buildings, or, we’re going to build a building, or, we’re going to restore this one, but then you don’t do that, it’s a little bit suspicious, especially when they find asbestos. One of the sticking points for me is that when I look at the salary schedules and how everybody is paid, I really just wish that they would disclose the CEO’s salary. Because I don’t care what it is, maybe our CEO makes a quarter million dollars, maybe he makes $20 million. Just tell us. I can understand, because that would be comparable to a superintendent. So whatever is the amount that a superintendent would make in the Bay Area, just put that as the salary, just like you would do for any other industry. It’s so weird to me that you wouldn’t just make that public. Because if my salary can be public, then why can’t yours? Tyler Powles: There actually was a board document from the Caliber Public Schools board back when they were hiring Terrance and approving him as the CEO, because our first CEO was Jen Moses, as I just mentioned. Then they hired Terrance, who is still the CEO, and who has most of his history and education, at least what that I’m aware of, is with KIPP. Similarly, there’s another member of the board who also worked with KIPP. Terrence then brought in someone just below him who came from KIPP and they knew him at KIPP. Then they both worked to hire a new upper school principal for Beta who also came from the KIPP network. This happened over the past few years. But that board document around Terrence’s hiring did list his salary. If I am remembering correctly, you were actually spot on, Erinn. It was $250,000 starting, which was, what, three or four years ago at this point? I’m assuming there could have been a little bit of a raise from year to year. Most people experience at least a cost of living raise, so it could be $250,000 and then some. There was a stipend involved in that initial salary that I believe was $20,000 for him to move to California in order to take this job. That was, again, somewhere on the publicly available Caliber Public Schools board documents, there is a form that just lists that outright. My memory is that the number was actually exactly $250,000 that first year. Erinn Murphy: Well, that’s fine, but then that should just be updated. Just, I would like to know. Every time that I’m told there’s not enough money for something, I would just like to know how much our CEO is being paid, just for my own satisfaction. Not to be bitter or anything, but I was talking to a leaving parent the other day and I was asking him, what are all the things that you were promised when you decided to choose Caliber? And he said, I was promised a STEM school, I was promised that my kid would be taught coding. They also said that they were going to do something about racism. Did they forget about that? Because they didn’t follow through on any of that. It was so heartbreaking to just see how the exact same disenchantment was reflected in our families. Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah. God, I mean, that is incredibly heartbreaking. Because I guess that’s the thing. I talked to my sister when she was teaching at a charter in New York City about this as well. It’s like, that’s not a bad thing to want. I mean, there’s a reason that those core values are appealing to parents and students and educators. It’s just having that be exploited, or you finding out for one reason or another, maybe they just don’t care about those things as much, or they don’t put them into practice as much as you would like. Like you said, Erinn, that disillusionment, we get that enough in so many other parts of our lives. The society we live in is disappointing enough. School should ideally be one of the places where you can realize potential, where the thought of personal growth and social growth is still alive. I’m not saying it’s dead over there, but it is just a very heartbreaking thing to confront when it feels like, I don’t know, this is just another place for people to come to be disappointed. I’m saying that for myself, I’m just editorializing here, not speaking for Tyler or Erinn or anyone over at Caliber. It’s just something I think about a lot. Because I was thinking again, that detail really caught me, Erinn, when you said that your teachers, when you expressed interest in wanting to be an educator yourself, they said, maybe don’t do that. I mean, that’s such a sad, I think, example of the situation that we’re talking about here. When I brought up the question of the larger landscape of education, I was thinking about when I interviewed a striking public educator in Minneapolis a couple months ago. A bunch of them were on strike and they were saying it’s like, we can’t retain people. Everyone’s either going to the private schools or leaving the profession for good. These are good teachers who give good education to students who need it, and we’re losing it. We don’t have the resources, and the state and the city are not giving it to us to be able to do our jobs, thereby creating that vicious cycle of disappointment. It just made me think of how that translates to so many other realms of education. Tyler, like you, I went into higher education. I wanted to be a university professor, and I wanted desperately to get my PhD and all that good stuff. I remember when I was applying to graduate schools, a bunch of professors at all these different universities, when I reached out to them saying, hey, I’m interested in your program, they were like, yeah, apply. You’ll be great. You got to do it, you got to do it. Everyone said that except one person, who was one of my advisors at my undergrad at the University of Chicago, who was a lecturer. So she was not a tenured professor and she was a lecturer, so she had seen the other side of the university and how it’s created this mass underpaid, under-protected workforce. She was the only one who was like, maybe you shouldn’t do this. Maybe you should reconsider. Because I’m telling you, it’s not what you think it is. The institution that you have grown up idealizing has become this factory that is run by underpaid adjuncts and graduate students and lecturers and yada, yada, yada. Anyway, I’m going on a tangent here. But again, it’s good to fight for something better than that, because I think we’re all in agreement here that education should be more than that and it can be more than that. If the administration is not making good on that promise, then it should be the workers who really take hold of that mission and say, this is what needs to be done for us to actually fulfill the promises that we’re making to students and their parents. Erinn Murphy: Yeah, I actually have been, in the past year, I have been one of the teacher leads, just like Tyler was talking about how he was a teacher lead. I was doing a lot of research on retention because I am so tired of losing good people. In the [inaudible] department, it’s not just losing good teachers, but also losing good para educators. You treat para educators like they’re disposable people, but they’re indispensable. So I was looking at a lot of what are the factors that people rate as keeping them in the profession. I looked at a really good article that looked at how people would make trade offs, and at what point was a raise worth less than other things. One thing that really stood out to me was that people were willing to take less of a salary if they had more help. I think that’s something that we’re really falling down with, with this charter in particular, because there is a promise of a lot of help. Because if you are a school where you’re intentionally attracting under experienced teachers, then you have to provide a lot of coaching. It’s not something they’re doing for fun, it’s because new teachers need a lot of coaching. But even teachers who’ve been teaching for over five years would like more help. When you get past elementary school, there’s really not any instructional assistance available. So the only other way to have another adult in the classroom is to either be co-teaching, or maybe there’s a para educator in there because there’s a kid with an IEP. That’s why a lot of us at the Vallejo site really would love to see a co-teaching model fully implemented, and it would solve a lot of problems. It would make a lot of people happier. But they love that buzzword co-teaching, but they won’t actually do it because it’s too expensive. It might cut into their budget for other fun things like their private corporate office. Which, I’m not meaning to sound bitter about that. But oh, my goodness, why do they need a separate office? I’m sorry, that one is a really bitter pill for me to swallow, just because as soon as we knew that the pandemic was coming, they all started working from home. Just let that sink in for a second. Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, man. I was going to say, I would expect you to be more bitter. Erinn Murphy: If you guys can all work from home, then why are we paying for a corporate office? I will never drive to that office again. I don’t care who I get to talk to, they can drive to my office. As somebody who’s been renting for 14 years, it’s really hard. It’s hard for me to know that those guys are sitting so comfortably in such an expensive space when my students are crammed into these tiny classrooms with no functioning air conditioning. It’s gross, it grosses me out. And I still have to work with these people. I still have to tell them they’re doing a great job. You have to. That’s all that you can do is keep telling everybody that they’re doing a great job. Good for you guys, you’re really making a difference. You’re really helping these kids. You’re really helping us help these kids. Good for you. You just see families and teachers come and go, nothing ever really changes. You have to really ground yourself in what feels good to you and make those connections. You have to keep all of your opinions to yourself. Even now that I am a member of the union, I don’t talk about it, because you don’t want anyone to know that you’re a member of the union. I don’t want people that I work with to think that I’m active in the union. And so it was really hard for me to even talk about it with anyone. It wasn’t until the third person was fired that I said, okay guys, we need to talk about this. Even then, I didn’t want to make it a thing that I talked about at work, because I knew that it would freak people out, and it would be dramatic, and I didn’t want my name tied to any of it. So I wrote a letter explaining what actually happened with the last separation. They love to call it a separation, because they would never fire anybody. So I wrote a letter to my co-workers and I said, you know what? Let’s just sit on it. Then they decided to get everybody in a circle, which we hadn’t done a whole community circle in months, but they did it. And they passed out a list of rules from our code of conduct from, I think, a version of the staff handbook that was from four years ago, which is not available on their website anymore. The third or fourth item on the list was not sharing any materials with anyone, typed or handwritten, that had not been approved by leadership ahead of time. When it became clear to me that they were going to actually make this an official separation and her contract had been terminated, and then they did this public display of don’t unionize, I printed the letter out. I actually was too afraid to print it out at school because that can be traced to me. I don’t know why I thought that it would make any difference, but I went to a Kinko’s or something and I just printed out one copy, and I went and I pinned it to the one place that I knew that I could do that, which was the bulletin board in our staff lounge. Let me tell you about our staff lounge. Our staff lounge is a very tiny space where, for COVID reasons, we had to not use it anymore. But then also for COVID reasons, we had to then move three people to have that as their office space. This is also the space that is the copy room. But then for COVID reasons, we then had to also use it as a break room again, so they shoved two cafeteria tables in there. Oh man, it’s a mess in there. So I posted it up on the bulletin board and I thought, man, these guys are all so busy, nobody’s ever going to even notice that I put this here. By the end of the day, I had three people who came to me and said, thank you so much for writing that letter, because I had no idea what had really happened. Maximillian Alvarez: Wow, wow. Yeah, Tyler, I want to bring you in here. I mean, because my jaw is dropping a little bit listening to Erinn, and I guess this leads us perfectly into talking about the unionization effort writ large. You both have said this a little bit, but maybe just to really ground listeners here, could you both talk a little bit just about what that day-to-day, week-to-week work looked like for you both, and what the warning signs were, and how the conversations about maybe unionizing, maybe getting together and doing something about this, how that all got going on your end? Tyler Powles: Sure. As I said, I joined Caliber Beta Academy in its third year in existence. At that point it was the only Caliber school, ChangeMakers had not yet opened. It was also the first year that they had a full K‑8, because they had this rapid expansion model where they went from being a first year school with three grades, sixth grade the following year, K‑8 the first year I was on. It was chaotic, pretty constantly chaotic. In my grade, for example, we were supposed to have four teachers in the grade so that the 100-plus students could be split into diads, which is to say split down the middle. There should be classes of about 26 kids per class, and they would have certain subjects between two teachers, and those two teachers would be responsible for about 52 of the kids. They could not hire a fourth fourth grade teacher, so we were on a triad model with 33 to 37 kids per class. Completely different structure than the rest of the elementary school for that reason. We already also that year had several people who were teaching without yet having a credential or necessarily a clear pathway towards one. There was one person who was hired the previous year because they were a sibling of a current teacher and were very excited to get involved in the school, thinking they were going to be doing one role, then they were actually shifted into the fourth grade classroom. But their prior experience was in food service, which is a wonderful occupation, good, honest work, and they are a great person who became an increasingly competent educator over his years there. But that is just to bring up how wild it is that they were hiring people under such circumstances, and similarly fast tracking me through the hiring process that I soon figured out why. That year we had one principal that was supposed to be K‑8, an assistant principal who was supposed to be K‑8. It was so chaotic, and that included some physically unsafe circumstances through the year. Fights, there was a fire started in one of the bathrooms. Again, we’re all in portables here which are effectively trailers, so the classrooms are separated and there’s no building. A lot of this in some ways can heighten certain unsafe situations. It was so coming apart at the seams in so many ways that they actually decided to split 6 – 8 from K‑5, and the assistant principal became the K‑5 principal and 6 – 8 got who was the K‑8 principal, and they tried to effectively divide and conquer and bring as much order and cohesion to the school as is possible. But as some of what Erinn has already said alludes to in some of the things that are on people’s minds about improving the school, people weren’t talking about getting more money when it came to unionizing. It wasn’t some things that you might think would be typical for employees who want to unionize. It was all people who wanted to make the workplace the ideal place for people to get to have their education, for families to be supported, for staff to be able to stay. Because year after year, what I would see is, overwhelmingly, really good hardworking teachers and staff unable or unwilling to stay. There were several controversial ending of contracts through the first few years of my time there. There were many, many more people who were just so physically and mentally drained that they just simply couldn’t do it anymore and either left education entirely or left Caliber schools entirely. There was a feeling between many people that I was aware of that they were being ostracized out of their job from leadership for wanting to see certain changes enacted. And all the while, in addition to day in and day out, people were doing everything they could plus three more things to try to make our school the best place, and that’s teachers and staff across the board. I mean, there was one year where the meal team, who overwhelmingly has children and grandchildren at the school, creatively found ways to reduce food waste and saved the school $40,000 that year. Every subset of employees was doing everything they could think of to try to make the school as efficacious as they could, to try to make the working conditions sustainable, because the working conditions are the student’s learning conditions. We tried every avenue that we were told from leadership: talk to your coach, try to talk to your school leader. Maybe we’ll have a listening session with the CEO. It was a lot of echo chamber that wasn’t amounting to any of the changes. Then at Beta there was this thing called the equity working group that was fairly successful in providing space for some of the more systemic, big conversations that people at Beta wanted and needed to grapple with, and ultimately provided space for a group of employees to come up with a proposal to try to restructure the leadership flow of Beta. Not to remove any school leaders’ jobs, but simply to institute some committees and be able to open up channels of communication and ultimately democratize the school more so that people who are doing the work, as well as families and students as stakeholders, would be able to get more of a say in the fundamental questions that undergird our institution. Like how will money be spent? What does the curriculum look like? What does training look like? What does support look like? Who covers breaks? Just things that make big, big differences in the day-to-day flow for students and staff that historically we didn’t have any actual decision making say in. Over the course of years, we went through a few different school leaders. For example, the year after the assistant principal became the K‑5 principal, he then became the assistant principal for a lower school once again because someone who they had hired, intending to start a high school right away, they put that on pause because Beta was still not really high functioning in the way that it should be. So they paused the high school, although they moved forward with opening ChangeMakers, a second K through eight school in Vallejo, and the person who was going to become the principal of the high school became the lower school principal. But there was a controversial ending of contract of someone that ultimately ended in a very public, all staff confrontation that nearly ended in physical confrontation, in fact. Following that, the principal never returned to campus, so the then assistant principal again became the principal again, and he has been the Beta principal ever since. Years of going through basically everything everyone could think of to try to get voices heard and to try to advocate for what people wanted and needed for themselves, for their co-workers, for their students, and for those families, it seemed like the next and possibly only avenue that we had was to formally unionize. Ultimately, I was actually the one who reached out to IWW after talking with a group of staff members who were all very much in support of going down this path. We chose IWW for many reasons. I mean, a lot of my, I think, systemic consciousness developed during the Occupy movement. Just on a personal level, a tangent for a moment. I think the Occupy movement was flawed in so many ways, but I had spent a lot of time up in Zuccotti Park. The first time we occupied Washington Square Park, I went up to Boston and Atlantic City and started an ongoing protest in my hometown in Philadelphia and Trenton, and was as involved as I could be given my life circumstances at the time. Although in many ways Occupy didn’t achieve things that it wanted to, it certainly changed the conversation, and I think expanded what a lot of folks thought about the reality that we’re all sharing, and showed me on a personal level that this localized emphasis on democracy and on building systems for people’s voices to be heard in an equitable way could amount to a lot. And my understanding of IWW was that their structure was going to allow us to not become another bureaucracy based union. Because so many unions in general, but I think particularly in the education sector, become really large self-serving bureaucracies where there are a lot of paid people who are not necessarily working in the schools anymore. It becomes almost as if a company has their first and foremost interest in sustaining the company in and of itself. It seems like the more bureaucratic a union gets, the more its emphasis becomes on sustaining the union and its positionality rather than advocating for the workers themselves. IWW’s model is such that they can provide us training and insights and connections with workers in all different sectors. Like you mentioned, Burgerville at the top of the show, the first ever fast food chain to be unionized in any way in the United States through IWW. The sanitation workers in Berkeley, the Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. Just workers in all different fields with all different experiences on the one hand, and also wanting to empower us to make all the decisions as the workers in the workplace. There never has been an outsider who has made any decisions on our behalf, and because of the structure of the union there never will be, it’ll always be the people who are doing the work in the workplace making those decisions. Right around March of 2020, actually, just before everything shut down and the pandemic started taking over folks’ lives, and then soon thereafter, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement became so prominent, that feeling that things need to be done in order to make fairer conditions in whatever way possible was really heightened for people. And there were more controversial employment changes, let’s say, at Caliber Beta Academy in particular. In addition to that core group of employees that was ready and willing to do some of the legwork to get the union started, there was a lot of increased urgency in doing something to improve the conditions that we were all sharing. I think that helped us, although it was very challenging in many ways to have the first year of union organizing be while our schools were entirely locked down and distanced. In other ways, I think that helped other people feel even more urgency about the need to do something different. Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I mean, it’s funny how things work out that way. Because around the time that you’re talking about, I started putting together a book of interviews with workers during what was then the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. So December 2020, January, February 2021, that was before Omicron and all that. But I remember talking to Rebecca Guirelli, a brilliant educator who worked in Chicago who was part of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, then moved to Arizona. So got two very different views of two very different public school systems, and now she’s a full-time organizer with Educators United. But I bring up Rebecca because she did make this point about organizing during COVID-19. She’s like, what was unexpected, but we used it to our advantage, is that it was always very hard to get people in a physical space to talk about joining a union or, even if you were part of a union, to come to a union meeting. Suddenly when COVID hit and everything went remote, more people were showing up to the meetings because A: they had a lot more to say about all these safety decisions and pay decisions that were being made without any of their input, and B: because it was more accessible, they could actually all log into a Zoom call. So you had this weird, unexpected dynamic that in a way supercharged some organizing efforts. But yeah, Erinn, I wanted to toss it back to you and ask, I know you said that you were originally very hesitant about a union in general, it’s such a movie type moment where you take that step and you post that letter on the bulletin board. It’s like when… Oh, fuck, what’s the movie where she holds up the union sign? It’s like one of those. Erinn Murphy: Oh, yeah. What’s that called? I don’t know. Yeah. Tyler Powles: My mom’s going to be so ashamed, her [crosstalk] very lovely neighbor. Maximillian Alvarez: I know, it’s driving me nuts. Tyler Powles: Yeah, last time I was there, her lovely neighbor who’s in her 80s pulls me aside all enthusiastically like, you absolutely have to watch this movie. Oh, it’s what I think about you. We went in and watched it that night. Oh, my gosh. Maximillian Alvarez: Norma Rae, Norma Rae! Erinn Murphy: Yes! Tyler Powles: Thank you. Maximillian Alvarez: Apologies to Sally Field. But anyway, yeah. Erinn, I was going to ask what it was like for you to get involved in that, and if you had any, I guess, preconceptions about working with the IWW? Erinn Murphy: In college, I volunteered with the Western Service… I could never say it – Workers Association, which has been around for a long time, but people don’t, I think, really hear about it because they’re really small and they really just serve workers. And the site that we had, both the leaders there were bilingual, and I worked with them as much as I could, but they were mainly serving the Latino community in Sacramento. I loved that union because all that they really did was to spread the word, and they had all donations. They were not a nonprofit because they said it was important to them to be able to protest whenever they wanted to and not be beholden to the government in any way. I was like, whoa, that’s pretty radical. And they actually did what they said they were going to do. They had people who came in and offered legal help. They had people who would call utility companies and help people get the services that they needed. They would go out into the community and organize resources on a really grassroots level, and I loved it. So I’m not saying that I have ever been anti-union, just what Tyler said about unions that serve to protect the unions, I’m not interested in that. But there was a point that I wanted to get back to, just about the whole idea of fast tracking people into the teaching profession and how we do need to encourage a lot of people to do that. But as Tyler said, we don’t want it to be a band aid situation. And I would never say this to people who were entering a school, but sometimes when a family has just thrown in the towel and they’re leaving, I do tell them this. I say, think about it this way. Somebody goes to college to get their bachelor’s degree for four years. Then it used to be a two year credential program. Now, usually people get their master’s or they do a combined program or whatever. And then after that you have two years of induction. Then after that, you typically have two years before you’d be eligible for tenure. So it’s at least eight years of education. And I know that a teacher is not the same status as a doctor, but what I ask parents is, if it’s that much education, it’s comparable to an expert in the medical field. You wouldn’t take your baby to a doctor who just graduated high school, so why would you take your baby to be taught in a school where everybody is just fresh out the gate? Tyler Powles: Yeah, to add one more analogy to the mix, someone said this to me a few years ago about the idea of having an inexperienced teacher. Just one that hasn’t been given the support that’s needed. They said, imagine you were stepping onto a plane to become a pilot, but you had not really yet had any coaching on how to be a pilot. And not only were you supposed to get everyone safely to the other side, you’re supposed to actually get them there better and smarter than they were when they took off in the first place. That’s what we’re asking of teachers who are either fast tracked in or who aren’t given the appropriate support and resources once they are in the classroom. Maximillian Alvarez: I talk to a lot of different workers in a lot of different industries, and we’ve all been watching what’s happening in the country. I mean, this time last year, all of our eyes were on the union drive at Amazon in Bessemer, Alabama. Then the coal miners in Alabama went on strike. And then the Frito-Lay workers went on strike. The Nabisco workers went on strike. John Deere workers went on strike. Teachers and Kaiser Permanente workers threatened to go on strike. Hollywood workers threatened to go on strike. Columbia University graduate educators were on strike. A lot of stuff was happening. Then the Amazon Labor Union unionized the JFK warehouse in Staten Island, Starbucks took off like a rocket. There’s shit happening, and I think we’re all looking around and trying to make sense of it all. But one thing that listeners have pointed out to me and that I’ve certainly noticed myself is, man, this really does feel like what I guess Bernie Sanders famously called the race to the bottom, where more and more professions are implementing this model. To Erinn’s point, with teaching as a historically, traditionally women’s work, it already is undervalued in that regard. Then you add onto that like, oh, you shouldn’t be asking for more because it should be about the kids. Then you add onto that all the ’90s and early 2000s union busting stuff about how teachers are overpaid, you could never fire them, and yada, yada, yada. Teachers deal with a lot of shit. But I think on top of that, the integration of this model where you’re sucking in young, bright-eyed future teachers who really probably believe in that work, and they get sucked up, they get ground down, and then they get spit out. How do you build an educational institution that way? How do students have that continuity with the teachers that they’ve had before? You lose that sense of community, you lose that institutional memory and that knowledge and the skills that educators and staff can pass on to each other. That’s what Amazon’s doing, I guess, is how I’d put it. Amazon’s turnover rate, famously, at its warehouse is 150%. It’s just taking in people, chewing them up, and spitting them out, and that’s part of its model. It knows that, it wants to do that. But I think workers have been doing a really good and important job, whether it be in education or logistics or what have you, of saying like, look, this not only takes a toll on us, it hurts the communities that we’re trying to serve. It hurts our families. It’s a really big problem when this is your model, to basically plan on very high turnover and not wanting to retain people. Erinn Murphy: Well, that’s a good point, but as I stated in my letter about this most recent firing, it was actually not a good business choice. I don’t want to go into the whole story, and obviously I told you I don’t want to ever name any names. But what we had was a very valuable person who started out as our behavior technician, and she very quickly was labeled as our lead behavior technician. But she was interested in pursuing a higher position. And so they told her, okay, great. Go ahead and start your credential program to become a school psychologist. What we had was this amazing lead behavior interventionist who then was also going to school to become a school psychologist. What that means in special education is a lot, because we already lost our last school psychologist who was amazing, and she was never replaced. We just started contracting out, and that’s two to three times more expensive. So this person was already doing a full time job at a lower salary, and she was starting to be able to deliver these psycho ed assessment reports on her own. And sure, there was somebody that was contracted out who was signing off on her reports, but at the end of this year she wouldn’t need that anymore because her program is now complete. So now we’ve invested four years into making this pretty much the highest paid position that is not an administrative level in special education. That’s why you usually only have one per school, maybe a few per district. I don’t know what the ratio would be. But anyway, we had her and the reason that we lost her is because she said, okay, I’m going to go to my school leaders. I’m going to go by myself, I can do this. I’m just going to tell them, you guys, I deserve to be paid as much as a school psychologist, because the other intern is getting paid as a school psychologist. So why not me? Well, they didn’t like that. And she said, well, come on, you guys. Then I’m not going to do the school site job then if you can’t pay me more. She restricted access on a Google drive where she had all these completed reports, and when our program specialist said, you can’t do that, that’s intellectual property, it belongs to Caliber, she granted access again. And it all happened so fast. None of us could talk to her. None of us could represent her in any way. She didn’t remember her Weingarten rights, nothing. And then she was gone. Maximillian Alvarez: Geez. I mean, I guess, it’s really important for everyone there to know and remember Weingarten rights. I guess, I could genuinely talk to you both about this for days, but I know you both have a lot going on and I really thank you for taking this time already to lay all this out for us. I really, really appreciate it. I guess the story that you just shared, Erinn, leads us into the final turn. Because as we said before, it’s not as if Caliber welcomed this unionization effort with open arms, and there’s been a lot of pushback, a lot of back and forth. I was wondering if you all could just fill listeners in here on what that back and forth has been, how things have progressed in recent months, and I guess where they stand right now. Tyler Powles: Certainly. To go back towards the beginning of the union campaign just once more, I said earlier that in about March of 2020, a group of employees started really going through the process of partnering with the IWW to get things going. And throughout the summer and throughout the following school year, organization was happening through the COVID pandemic distanced world. And we filed for recognition with the California Public Employees Labor Relations Board for both certificated and non-certificated staff, which is essentially teachers and instructional aids and para educators and the meal team. Effectively all the employees at the school that we could possibly represent, rather than just having the teacher’s union. This is after we asked Caliber leadership to voluntarily recognize us several times to no response. Then when we decided to have a solidarity rally near Beta’s campus, that’s when we first got some response along the lines of having some school leadership email staff, claiming that they never had an opportunity, and this was catching them off guard, and linking to some fairly “dubious” news articles about the dangers of unions, particularly in schools. They ultimately made the case to the Public Employee Labor Relations Board that even though Caliber Beta Academy and Caliber ChangeMakers Academy are in two different school districts, in two different cities, and there are board documents that use words like autonomous to describe the relationship between the schools, that actually they should be considered one school and there should be one bargaining unit. So in fact, we don’t have an overwhelming majority of staff, because we only had the overwhelming majority of Beta staff. We had at that point, I believe, nearly 70% of the teaching staff and about 90% of the non-teaching staff at Beta, so a really overwhelming majority. And the Public Employee Labor Relations Board surprised us, because it seems to be outside of the regular precedent in initially tentatively siding with Caliber’s argument that it should in fact be one school. So we were preparing a legal case and had court dates set to argue in court that it should be one school. But in the meanwhile, we had ultimately always imagined we would try to organize ChangeMakers, because we knew that although they were a different school, they very likely had similar problems. Some Beta employees actually have friends and family members who work at ChangeMakers. So we’d heard enough to know that a union would probably help them too, if they wanted and chose it. So while we were preparing the legal case on the back end we said, all right, well, we’ll organize ChangeMakers now. Meanwhile, management engaged in some intimidation of employees, they refused to provide contact lists that the union should be entitled to. They did things like take down the staff pictures and names on the school website so that we wouldn’t be aware of the number of employees at either school or the names of people that weren’t yet in the union so we couldn’t reach out to them via email. They started censoring whole school email communications. They still to this day get filtered and school leadership has to approve all school communications of any sort. We filed several unfair labor practice charges, one of which involved the non-renewal of my contract. Which you’ll recall I was there for five of the school’s seven years at that point. I then was the grade team lead for fourth grade. I was also the longest standing teacher in the history of the fourth grade at Caliber Beta Academy. I was still the president of the school site council. I was still writing the science curriculum for third, fourth, and fifth grade because prior to my first year at the school there wasn’t dedicated science time or curriculum, and I was told by a school leader, we can do some things, but we can’t do everything. And it seemed unacceptable that one of the things we couldn’t do was science and social studies. We had to fight to try to get those things added, and I was still supporting multiple grades and doing that in addition to the teaching load. I had a meeting with a school leader for my regular performance evaluation, and I still have the piece of paper that says essentially met, met, met, met, met, met. Regular evaluation, continue with your coaching goals, everything’s good. Then two weeks to the day later, the Wednesday before offer letters were going to go out the previous Monday. At the end of an unrelated meeting, it was a meeting about checking in with the fourth grade team lead. The principal wanted to talk about standardized tests that were coming up and just logistical things. With about two minutes left in the meeting he said, is there anything else you think I should know? And I said, yes, there are several people on the fourth grade team who feel unwelcome at this school now. And I wasn’t actually talking about me. I was talking about other members of the team, some of whom had also taught in situations where there were only three teachers so they had over 30 kids in the classroom. Two of whom were women of color who felt that their voices had been marginalized and they had different personal needs that they’d advocated for and that the school wasn’t listening to. One person felt ostracized because she’d asked too many questions. I was just saying to the school leader, this hasn’t affected their performance at all because they’re all very professional, competent educators. But as the school leader, I think you should be aware that they’re feeling this way and we should try to come up with a plan to make the entire team feel like a part of the community again. Rather than asking any questions about who or why, or what we can do, the conversation immediately turned to well, we should probably discuss why you are not going to get an offer letter. Which took me completely off guard because this wasn’t an evaluative meeting and I wasn’t even referring to me. It wasn’t until I reached out to a different school leader because we had been working together, I was piloting a peer mentor program and the other school leader wanted to make it a permanent part of the school the following year. I essentially reached out to them saying, a lot of our conversations have been next year in scope, and I was just effectively told I probably won’t be here next year so that’s going to change our work. To expedite the conversation, I’ll just say that in a text message, she described a meeting with other employees in which she found out that I am “a leader of the union,” which made it clear as day in my view where this sudden change of heart and change of my job status was coming from. There have been other cases like that, I’m not the only employee who is experiencing that. But the charge was essentially that that too was wrongful non-renewal based on union activity. That was the charge we alleged, and there were other ULPs charged as well. Earlier, Erinn mentioned the staff room in ChangeMakers. This year I’ve actually gone there a few times to help sign people up for the union and talk with them. The first day that we were exercising that right of the union to have a union rep on campus and talk to people, right after we sent the email to them, the school leadership of ChangeMakers announced a surprise free lunch tomorrow for all of the employees. Totally different part of the campus than the staff lounge. Maybe they were just feeling some generosity in their heart, or maybe they wanted as many people as possible to not have lunch in the staff lounge that day so that there would be less people to talk to. That is up to the listeners’ thoughts and opinions. But there are just many, many examples that seem both explicit and implicit of either intimidation or coercion to try to veer people away from the union. Erinn also told that story about just recently when they got everyone together and essentially reminded them that we’re all still fire at will and tried to make people feel more fear around their occupational safety, which is all part of why the union is so necessary for folks, because they shouldn’t need to feel fear. They shouldn’t wonder in such ways about whether or not they’re going to be there if they’re doing their jobs sufficiently and they’re trying their best with what they’re given. I think that’s particularly and especially true of hourly staff, which at Beta Academy has historically been exclusively people of color, largely people from Richmond,
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