Alejandro Chavez is the grandson of Cesar Chavez.
Cesar Chavez, my grandfather, spent his life standing up for workers’ rights. His faith in the power of nonviolent organizing to bring about social change and his tireless efforts to build the United Farm Workers union inspired me and many others to fight for the rights and dignity of all workers. That’s why I am so upset about the hypocrisy on display at the D.C. charter school network that bears his name, Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy.
In spring 2017, the educators at Chavez Prep Middle School organized a union to improve conditions at their school, just as my grandfather would have done. They counted United Farm Workers Union co-founder Dolores Huerta among their earliest supporters, adopted “What would Cesar do?” as a slogan and named their local 1927, the year my grandfather was born. Chavez Prep became the first unionized charter school in the District, which would have made Cesar immensely proud.
However, instead of respecting the union and bargaining a contract with educators in good faith, the Chavez board of trustees and its for-profit consultant TenSquare acted more like the growers my grandfather fought. They tried to sabotage the unionization effort and, when that failed, brought in an attorney from New York who dragged out contract negotiations for more than a year. Despite these challenges, the educators of Local 1927 persisted. They continued to show up at the bargaining table and put forth proposals to protect their students, many from immigrant families, direct more resources to classrooms and create a more sustainable life for school staff.
In January, the Chavez trustees shocked the community by announcing they would close the school’s doors. Educators found out not from the trustees, but from a reporter at The Post. Students and their families were informed just days before enrollment deadlines for the next school year. Local 1927 sprang into action. Members tried to comfort their students, crushed by the news that a pillar in their lives was crumbling. They assisted families in finding placements for the next school year. They went back to the bargaining table and demanded resources to assist students and staff through the closure. They spoke out at news conferences and government hearings, filed charges with the federal labor board and called for greater transparency and accountability in the charter school industry.
They lived the values that their union was founded upon. They did what Cesar would have done. Now, with the school year ended, Chavez Prep staff and their families are facing the prospect of living without paychecks and health-care coverage over the summer. The board is refusing them even the most basic severance, while admitting it can afford to offer one. One teacher told the Chavez trustees about the needs of her 18-month-old child who has an eye condition requiring doctors’ appointments and medicine. Another spoke anxiously of her vulnerable 7-month-old baby. Others noted that young charter schoolteachers, already underpaid and often burdened by student debt, do not have “rainy day” savings and simply cannot afford COBRA health coverage. But the trustees have continued to refuse a single dollar of transitional support.
It is cruel and ironic for the Chavez board to be engaged in such offensive conduct. I am disgusted that those who would seek to gain profit or prestige under the banner of my grandfather’s name and image can so easily forget that he spent every ounce of his being supporting workers like those in Local 1927.
As negotiations continue, the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools trustees must reflect deeply on the responsibility they took in becoming board members. I sincerely hope they decide to honor and uphold my grandfather’s legacy. Otherwise, their schools should no longer bear my family’s name.