UTNO was the first integrated teachers' union in Louisiana, and the first to win a collective bargaining agreement in the state without the protection of a state employees collective bargaining law. Once the largest union in Louisiana, a state takeover of the city public schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina nearly destroyed the union. UTNO has been reorganizing with help from its parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, and the AFL-CIO. As of August 2007, the union had regained more than 1,000 members and in October 2007 began negotiating its first post-storm contract with the Orleans Parish school board (OPSB).
The formation of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City in 1961 electrified teachers in the U.S., and collective bargaining gained momentum across the nation and in Louisiana. The AFT formed a state federation, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, to help counter the strength of the Louisiana Education Association (which opposed collective bargaining and strikes). Both the NEA and AFT teachers' unions in New Orleans, however, pushed the OPSB for the right to bargain collectively. In 1966, the AFT affiliate struck for three days in an attempt to win a contract. But only 10 percent of the city's 5,000 teachers walked off the job.
The AFT struck New Orleans public schools again in 1969, asking all teachers to follow the union onto the picket line. Nearly 1,000 teachers—almost all of them black, and members of the AFT—walked out. Unfortunately, the only schools to close were those which had an overwhelmingly African American student body. The national AFT flew in a large number of national organizing staff to save the strike. The local union established an "anarchy committee" to put pressure on the school district. The "anarchy committee" slashed tires, jammed door locks, and threw cherry bombs into school building toilets. But other unions in the city refused to honor the strike. After black students in several high schools rioted, the African American community withdrew its support for the union. The strike folded after three weeks.
In 1978, the union struck again to win collective bargaining, and this time was successful. With white teachers finally participating in the strike, nearly 3,500 of the school district's 5,000 educators walked out, and two-thirds of the city's children were affected. UTNO had prepared for the strike by working closely with parents and community activists this time, and soon parents began joining the picket line and protesting as well. The strike lasted 12 days before the district agreed to recognize the union and sign a collective bargaining agreement, giving the union a 7 percent pay hike and better health insurance. UTNO became the first teachers' union in the Deep South to win a contract without the protection of a state public employee collective bargaining law.
UTNO did not strike again until 1990. Once more, the issue was pay. And, once more, two-thirds of the city's teachers walked off the job. The strike lasted three weeks, and again the union was successful in winning substantial pay increases.
In 1998, LaCour was elected executive vice president of the AFT, and he retired as UTNO president. Brenda Mitchell was elected to succeed him.
Over the years, UTNO organized a wide variety of school workers in addition to teachers. Custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and school nurses all belonged to the union. The union's membership stood at over 7,500 members in August 2005, making UTNO the largest union in the city and the state. The union's political power was so great that it could often make or break political careers not only in New Orleans but in many parts of the state.
The biggest issue facing the union in the 1990s and early 2000s was the quality of education. The dropout rate in city schools was very high, particularly among African American children, and few minority public school graduates went on to higher education. New Orleans students also tested very low on a number of reading, math, science and other measures. UTNO argued that New Orleans students suffered from severe poverty, malnutrition, poor health care and domestic violence, all of which significantly impaired their ability to learn. The school district was chronically underfunded and financially mismanaged, and leadership turnover was high (with nine interim or permanent superintendents in 10 years). The solution, the union argued, was for significantly higher levels of funding for the schools and other public social services agencies. Critics, however, said that the union was a significant part of the problem. The union's collective bargaining agreement protected incompetent teachers; made it difficult to adopt an innovative curriculum; failed to reward good teaching; established onerous work rules; and generated large amounts of paperwork, which took clerical staff and aides out of the classroom.
In 2003, the Louisiana State Legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD). The legislation established a School Performance Score (SPS). The SPS was a composite evaluation based on the scores of one of three student performance exams, the school's dropout rate, and the school's attendance rate. A school was labeled "academically unacceptable" (AU) if it failed to achieve a minimum SPS score of 45. (In 2004, the legislature raised the minimum SPS score to 60.) Any school designated as AU for four consecutive years was classified as "failing" and eligible for state takeover. However, a failing school could be transferred to the RSD only if a private organization agreed to assume management of the school and turn it into a charter school.
After two years, only five New Orleans public schools had been transferred to the RSD.
UTNO members, about to begin the school year, received their first and last two-week paycheck on September 1, 2005. With no tax revenue flowing into OPSB coffers, the school district cancelled further paychecks and all insurance for New Orleans education workers.
Hurricane Katrina also left 100 of New Orleans' 128 school buildings heavily damaged.
Reacting to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, on November 22, 2005, the Louisiana legislature passed Act 35 and took over the New Orleans public school system. Eleven of the 20 state representatives from Orleans Parish voted against the takeover plan.
Act 35 changed the definition of a failing public school and the terms under which the state could assume of a school. First, the definition of a failing SPS score was defined as "below the state average." In the 2004-05 school year, the state average was 87.4. Thus, Act 35 substantially raised the bar for low-performing schools. Second, Act 35 expanded the state's takeover authority to entire school districts (rather than individual schools). Act 35 defined a failing school district as one which had more than 30 failing schools, or one where at least 50 percent of students attended AU schools.
Act 35 applied almost exclusively to Orleans Parish. Only 14 of Louisiana's 64 school districts had more than 30 schools, and almost none of them had the requisite number of AU schools or percentage of students in AU school to meet the new definition of a "failing" school district.
To UTNO leaders, Act 35 seemed to be aimed squarely at them. Conservative state legislators appeared to be using the Hurricane Katrina crisis to break the union in the name of quality education. "The changes in the SPS standard, the addition of a 30-school threshold provision and the timing of this change strongly suggest that state officials were intent on assuming control of most OPSB public schools. This view is also supported by the fact that although there are 'failing' schools in three other Louisiana school districts, state officials have not initiated a takeover of any of those schools.
Act 35 had a significant effect on the Orleans Parish School Board's functioning. The RSD took over 112 schools, operating 95 of them directly and permitting 17 others to be run by charter school organizations. The Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education took over two other public schools, turning them over to charter school operators as well. OPSB retained control over only 18 schools. In order to obtain federal funding to repair and reopen these schools, OPSB turned 13 of the schools over to a single charter school operator, the Algiers Charter School Association. Only five schools remained under the direct control of OPSB.
Whether intended to do so or not, Act 35 broke the United Teachers of New Orleans. With so few schools under its control, OPSB fired all teachers and other city education personnel on January 31, 2005. On February 1, 2006, UTNO filed suit to force the city to open more public schools. Another suit attempted to win back-pay as a result of Act 35 layoffs, while a third sought contractually-required disaster pay, lost sick days, employer-paid health care premiums, and additional employer contributions to the union's health and welfare funds. When the union's collective bargaining agreement expired in June 2006, the OPSB declined to renegotiate the agreement.
As of late December 2006, only 27,066 of New Orleans' pre-Katrina student population of 66,372 had returned. Only 54 schools were open, with 20 of these operated by OPSB, charter schools approved by OPSB or charter schools approved by the state board of education. The remaining 34 schools were operated by the RSD, and 74 schools remained closed.
The union also undertook a number of initiatives in 2007 to rebuild its influence. When a charter school board suspended its director, principal and four others after parents and teachers accused them of inflicting unduly harsh corporal punishment on students and summarily firing teachers, UTNO argued that the incident was a prime example of why a collective bargaining agreement with due process and grievance provisions was necessarily. The union also began staging small, regular demonstrations throughout the city to protest the lack of a contract and publicize problems in the various public and private schools. The union also began pushing for re-unification of the various schools and districts under one management structure, which the union claimed would help stabilize the district and provide more uniform administrative and teaching policies. It would also help rebuild union membership more quickly if collective bargaining resumed.
The union's actions appeared to pay off. OPSB Superintendent Paul Vallas made public appearances with UTNO President Brenda Mitchell, and asked for the union to partner with the district in improving education. Mitchell offered a conciliatory response, saying that UTNO stood "ready to work with the new superintendent to turn this district around." In October 2007, the union and OPSB settled lawsuits the union filed the previous year. The school board agreed to pay $1,000 each of its 6,800 employees fired after Hurricane Katrina and to contribute $200,000 to the union to administer the payouts. In exchange, the union ended five lawsuits against the OPSB, and dropped three arbitrations involving the school district. The OPSB also agreed to negotiate a new contract with UTNO as part of the settlement. The union dropped the School Board as a defendant in a sixth suit, while continuing its case against the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Louisiana Department of Education. The union's membership rose dramatically as the AFT devoted large amounts of organizing and other assistance to the local union. There is some disagreement about just how many members the union had, however. Union president Mitchell said the local had 900 members during the 2006-2007 school year. But a union spokesperson said the union had more than 1,000 members in June 2007. It is unclear how many of these members are teachers, however. About 1,000 teachers were employed by OPSB in August 2007.
UTNO continued to criticize the performance of the charter schools in New Orleans. In October 2007, the union issued a report, "Reading, Writing and Reality Check," which claimed that LEAP test scores (the state's yearly assessment of progress) in charter schools were no higher than in public schools. Rather, UTNO said, LEAP scores were highest in schools which had more veteran teachers. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools challenged the reports conclusions, although the group also agreed that the RSD had far more organizational and financial problems than the charter schools (which could account for the RSD's poorer performance).
In January 2008, negotiations finally opened with the OPSB on a new collective bargaining contract. The OPSB unanimously elected Torin Sanders, a union supporter, president of the board. Sanders replaced Phyllis Landrieu, a former OPSB president and strong supporter of charter schools.
In February 2008, the union claimed supermajorities among eligible staff in both OPSB and RSD-run schools.