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R.I. Unions at Odds in Suit Over Millions in Benefits

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Members of a Rhode Island teachers' union are breaking ranks with their top state leaders over a lawsuit that could bring the officials millions of dollars in state benefits--but cost the union its solidarity in the process.

At least three local affiliates of the National Education Association-Rhode Island have voted to withhold their dues since union leaders last July filed the federal lawsuit seeking to reinstate some generous state pensions. The officials are using membership dues to cover their legal expenses.

Some rank-and-file members have assailed the union leaders' recent moves and have accused them of being out-of-step with the state's teachers. And the funding for the legal challenge has been the focus of most of the complaints.

"If the individual people want to fight for [the pensions], we have no quarrel," said Barbara Cunniff, the president of the N.E.A.'s local affiliate in Scituate, the first union to withhold dues over the lawsuit. "But we don't want them to use our money to do it."

Leaders of the state union are holding their ground. They say they have done nothing wrong and will continue to make that case in the internal debate that has gripped the union.

"This is a political issue within the organization," said Harvey Press, the president of the N.E.A.-Rhode Island, which is involved with the suit along with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. "And there have been charges from all sides."

Repealing the Deal

In 1987, the state legislature passed a bill giving union leaders and staff members permission to buy in to the state pension system for the time they spent on full-time union business.

Criticism prompted the legislature to repeal the law a year later.

But a 1989 state-court ruling allowed the 25 union officials who had joined the system before the repeal to keep their benefits.

The issue, however, was not resolved permanently.

Last year, Nancy J. Mayer, the state general treasurer, helped persuade the legislature to pass a new measure removing the union officials from the pension system, which Ms. Mayer's office oversees.

"[Ms. Mayer] thought they had improperly bought in to the plan and that the law passed in '87 was unconstitutional," Steve Klamkin, a spokesman for the treasurer, said.

"Some of these people joined the system without anything to hang their hats on in terms of government service," he added. Some of the union officials had been classroom teachers or later went on to teach, but others devoted their careers to union work.

Now, 21 of the 25 officials who originally applied to the system are awaiting a federal district court's ruling on whether their benefits should be reinstated. The officials are claiming that the 1994 repeal violated the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Mr. Press also said union officials have a right to the money because the 1987 law classified their unions as state agencies.

In total, the union leaders purchased about 400 years of time in the pension system, Mr. Klamkin said. An actuarial study done for the treasurer's office estimated that the group's lifetime benefits were worth nearly $12 million.

'Help Yourself'

News of the lawsuit traveled to teachers throughout the state, who were not all sympathetic to their leaders' cause.

The rank and file and officials of the local unions in several towns were still sore over the 1987 bill. And the lawsuit, paid for with union dues, only made matters worse, they said.

"We believe the union got the [original] bill in for the benefit of the people in the union office," said Harlecq Phelps, the president of the Jamestown Teachers Association, a small affiliate of the N.E.A.-Rhode Island.

"This is typical" of Rhode Island politics, she added. "You help yourself."

The Jamestown union followed Scituate's lead and voted unanimously last month to withhold its dues. The teachers already have paid about 75 percent of their fees for this school year, but they expect to hold back about $3,000.

Teachers in Scituate have refused since September to pay their dues. Ms. Cunniff estimates that the 125-member union will withhold about $18,000 this school year from the state affiliate, also a member of the N.E.A.

Mr. Press said the N.E.A.-Rhode Island has demanded that those teachers come up with the dues--or the union could take legal action, claiming breach of contract.

But state-union leaders may have to contend with other runaway locals.

Last month, teachers in North Kingstown also voted to withhold their dues. The vote was close, however, and by last week the local union had not taken any action, Mr. Press said.

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