“These teachers helped us during the hardest year of school and now they’re getting laid off.”
By R. Nicholas
On Wednesday, June 23rd, staff at Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School (PFSJCS) in Chicopee and UAW 2322 representatives held an informational picket outside the school responding to the school’s choice not to renew the contracts of two-thirds of their unionized teaching staff at the end of the 2020-21 school year. “[The administration] thought that if they ignored us, we’d stop. They thought if they fired us, we’d stop,” said Carol Huben, a UAW 2322 member and current Paulo Freire teacher. “We’re here to say we’re not going to stop.” She continued: “Since we unionized, people have been written up for things as simple as having their union membership acknowledged in their Zoom handles”.
Teachers and supporters marched back in forth in front of the school with signs invoking the beliefs of the school’s namesake, Paulo Freire, radical Brazilian philosopher and author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as pleas to hold Gil Traverso accountable and the need for better treatment in the workplace, with chants like “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and “Paulo Freire, what a shame! This is how you use his name?”
The action saw considerable turnout from Paulo Freire staff both current and former as well as local groups such as Central Valley Tenants Union, the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, Industrial Workers of the World, the UMass Graduate Student Union (also UAW 2322), Educators for a Democratic Union, and the Democratic Socialists of America. Alongside them were over a dozen students who showed up in support of their teachers, including the PFSJCS school dance team who showed up in uniform with pompoms in hand to perform on the picket line. “We connected with them,” one dance team member, a rising senior at PFSJCS, told The Shoestring. “These teachers helped us during the hardest year of school and now they’re getting laid off.”
All the employees who were let go are members of UAW 2322, having unionized in March of 2020. New Executive Director Gil Traverso was brought on shortly after the staff announced they had unionized. He required long term and newer staff alike to interview for their own jobs at the end of the 2020-21 school year, something never done in the eight year history of the school. Every single person interviewed was not offered their position, including three department heads. No explanation was offered for their non renewal of contracts.
The Shoestring spoke with Elizabeth Webb, an organizer with UAW 2322 as well as Zach Novak, a former teacher at Paulo Freire who was let go in 2020. Both described the recent layoffs as the latest in a series of union busting efforts which have been occurring over the past year since the staff began organizing with UAW. Currently the union has 22 unfair labor practice complaints pending against the charter school with more coming as the administration refuses to come to the bargaining table. “They’ve consistently disrespected both students and teachers in really egregious ways,” said Webb.
“Everything is really coming to a head,” said Novak. “This is kind of a systemic issue with charter schools in general – I think we’re the third in the country to successfully do even the initial organizing to certify a bargaining unit but before that there were gaps in our pay, there was no disciplinary procedure. One of the things you’ll hear from any teacher you talk to is that it’s all a cult of personality – if they like you, you’re good and if they don’t like you, you’re bad. It’s really uneven in terms of workplace fairness and basic dignity.” Charter schools, it is worth noting, have long been a pet project of Conservatives to undermine teachers’ unions.
Though the union has been bargaining for a year with the school, the administration has not been receptive or forthcoming to UAW’s requests, Webb explained. The administration also retaliated against union members for organizing for better labor conditions, telling the organizers to stop actions in the workplace. “This isn’t new,” said Novak. “There have been mass firings and employees retaliated against under previous administrations at the school, but no one had the courage to report on it and there wasn’t a union to do anything about it.”
During the 2019-2020 school year, Novak was offered a renewal of his contract. As Traverso, the new Executive Director came on board, he told Novak that a response to the offer would need to be received by a certain day via email, but the school’s HR Director alternately told Novak that he would need to wait until the hard copy was received—causing confusion and putting Novak in a bind. “But [Traverso] then arbitrarily made this rule that if I didn’t email it back by a certain day, they wouldn’t know if I had accepted or not. So I got a call from the principal the night before I was supposed to report back to work in late August, saying ‘I’m sorry but we’re rescinding your offer’ and when I asked him why, he wouldn’t tell me. The Department of Labor Rights has now essentially decided that this was retaliation, because the only reason why they would do that is because of my role in organizing.”
When other staff became vocal about their participation in the union, they faced discipline as well either by having vulnerabilities in their contracts taken advantage of or not renewed, or alternately suddenly having much larger workloads placed on them to likely inhibit their ability to participate in organizing. Changes to teaching structures moving online during the COVID-19 lockdown heavily affected the staff’s concerns as well, which the bargaining committee brought to administration.
After being ignored for months, the school offered no agreeable solutions to the union’s requests. “Paulo Freire is failing its students and replicating these systems of inequality that these kids already deal with, so that’s really the irony here – this claims to be a social justice school and yet its actions are anything but. Its whole reason for existing is to service underserved, marginalized communities in the area and yet the school continues to fail them in exactly the ways it claims to combat,” said Novak. “All these teachers who kids have relationships with are all being terminated, it doesn’t make sense. A condition of their academic probation is that they have to improve test scores in English and Math, but for the third year in a row now they’ve eliminated their entire English department and started from scratch – they can’t keep English teachers for more than a year it seems, and Math isn’t much better. But the breaking story right now is that we’re trying to undo these illegal firings and win a contract that will hopefully make the school function the way it claims it wants to function.”
“[Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School’s] actions are in line with their treatment of unionized workers since teachers and staff unionized with UAW 2322 in March of 2020. They have consistently engaged in union-busting by retaliating against teachers and staff for engaging in union activity, including disciplining and even firing union leaders,” states the press release from UAW 2322. “Leadership at PFSJCS has made bargaining for a first contract as difficult as possible. Despite this, teachers and staff are fighting back and are determined to create positive change in how teachers, students, and parents are treated alike.”
Huben, the teacher mentioned in the intro, explained that the administration had waited to give notice that teachers’ contracts had not been renewed until the last five minutes of the last day of school once all students had left, ensuring that teachers would be unable to notify their students or say goodbye. Huben explained that she was one of eight teachers still under contract at the school with contracts remaining from the school’s previous director which has allowed her job protection for the time being.
The outpour of student support, however, was not unexpected. When mass layoffs occurred in 2019, prior to unionization, students staged a walk-out in protest. “I’ve learned a lot of things here,” said Zariah, a class of 2020 Paulo Freire alumni who came to show solidarity with her former teachers. “It’s like a family. As a social justice school, being here is a way to show what we’ve learned.”
Kaniel Cabrere, another PFSJCS alumni who worked at the school for a year after graduation as a security guard, told The Shoestring that he’d seen the school change massively in recent years since his time in what he described as the last class taught by the original teachers from the school’s founding mission. “This is no longer a social justice school,” he remarked. “We used to have two teachers to a class of 15 to 20 students and got real one-on-one attention. Now there’s one teacher and 24 students to a class and less attention paid to students and education.”
“A lot of things happened here after I graduated that I didn’t agree with,” Cabrere continued: “A large population of these students are Puerto Rican and most of the teachers don’t even speak Spanish. As a security guard, I’d be asked to take kids to the office who were getting in trouble all the time and these kids would tell me that they’d behave better if only the faculty understood them. I’m from the same communities and neighborhoods as these students. It’s not social justice if you’re not asking them questions about their lives and going into their communities. But these teachers who have been let go are good teachers, so why are they getting pushed out?”
“The teachers here are awesome,” said Wendy Sherry, an art teacher who was among the faculty whose contracts were not renewed at the end of the 2020-21 school year. “I love these kids and I am here to advocate for my students. I am more than a teacher. I love them and I want them to know that, whether or not I’m at the school.” Sherry told The Shoestring that she found out her contract would not be renewed prior to the official layoffs, when she saw her job posted as hiring on Indeed, a job search website. When she, like her coworkers, was brought in for a rehiring interview, she said she was asked questions as if she was “a total stranger,” not a teacher employed at the school since 2018. “In my evaluation, they mostly asked me questions about my technology proficiency as it pertained to Zoom,” said Sherry. “I was teaching these kids about surrealism and art while they were at home with no art materials provided to them by the school. I said that my kids were important to me and that they needed consistency. Through the entire last school year, Gil [Traverso] never checked in with me about how I or my students were doing.”
Two hours after the picket ended, the board of directors of PFSJCS held a hearing to discuss Traverso’s position moving forward. The first director arrived at Paulo Freire while the action was still in progress and multiple students approached him with their concerns about the executive director and the future of their education. “We’ll see how ‘social justice’ this school board is tonight,” Sherry said.
As of the publication of this article, the school board has renewed Traverso at over $180,000 per year on a four year contract, according to Webb. The union will be moving forward with their labor complaints and bargaining and continues to ask for community support.
The Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School could not be reached at press time. We will update the story accordingly.
R. Nicholas is a staff writer at The Shoestring.
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