Education Reporter's Notebook

Head of L.A. Local Can’t Get Delegates Pumped for ‘Union’

By Bess Keller — July 12, 2005 3 min read
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It’s unusual that the head of the hometown union greets the National Education Association’s delegates at their annual meeting, which moves among about eight big cities.

Accompanied by the Cat in the Hat, the title character from the Dr. Seuss book, President Reg Weaver launches NEA festivities at the union's annual meeting last week in Los Angeles.

But here, such an official did do the honors during the July 3-6 gathering. Los Angeles is the rare metropolis with a significant NEA presence, thanks to a merger about three decades ago between the NEA affiliate and its American Federation of Teachers counterpart. The AFT, though smaller nationally, is dominant in big urban districts.

Thus, A.J. Duffy, the new president of United Teachers Los Angeles, addressed convention-goers last week.

Several points in his brief speech to the Representative Assembly resonated with what NEA officials said in their turns at the microphone, but from the final sound of it, Mr. Duffy has not quite caught the cultural difference between the two national unions.

The leader of the 46,000-member local told the delegates that UTLA had experienced a dramatic change with his election. He promised to take the union “in bold new directions,” such as fighting to equalize resources among the city’s have and have-not schools.

Echoing themes sounded by NEA President Reg Weaver, Mr. Duffy called for the union “to mobilize and organize” to be able to stand up to “forces in Washington and across the nation that want to destroy and then privatize our profession.”

And he blasted the federal No Child Left Behind Act, as Mr. Weaver has done, though the Los Angeles leader was perhaps more hyperbolic. “If [the law] is successful in its insidious underpurpose, it will create a new four horsemen of the apocalypse—poverty, racism, apathy, and illiteracy on a massive scale,” Mr. Duffy charged.

But then Mr. Duffy’s wrap-up foundered on a word that stirs ambivalence in NEA members, though not their AFT counterparts, who are part of the AFL-CIO behemoth.

The scrappy UTLA president called on the delegates to add their voices to his in chanting “union”—as any good AFT crowd would. The response here was polite and puny. After four “unions,” Mr. Duffy called it quits.

NEA delegates cleared the way last week for a merger between the National Education Association of New York and the far larger New York State United Teachers.

The unionists voted by a 3-2 ratio to allow local affiliates of what would be a merged New York state union to cast their ballots for officers publicly as NYSUT does now, with the proviso that locals be allowed to choose instead to cast secret ballots. The secret-ballot system is the one prescribed by NEA bylaws, which is why the body had to act on a change.

Supporters of the compromise stressed that New York state was the one exception, but opponents worried about a precedent. “We’re really pleased that the members wanted to help their sisters and brothers in New York do what they want to do,” said Kathleen Lyons, the executive director of NEA-New York, which has about 40,000 members to NYSUT’s approximately 500,000.

Ms. Lyons said she hoped to see most of the work of the merger completed by next spring, with the new organization starting officially Sept. 1, 2006.

Patricia “Pixie” Pixler, a delegate from Minnesota, might think twice before submitting an action item to the NEA’s Representative Assembly again. Or maybe she just needs her proposal to be heard before the last hour of the last day of the four-day gathering.

Ms. Pixler’s proposal—No. 91 out of 92 such “new-business items”—innocently asked the NEA to explore alternatives to latex products used at the convention. At last year’s gathering, she explained, passing under an arch of balloons had given her an allergic reaction.

But the discussion, up to that point not so different from others the delegates had heard on the environmental hazards of mercury and perfume, turned ribald when another unionist wanted the words “natural rubber” added as an explanation for “latex.”

A good, if blushing, sport, Ms. Pixler gamely read her statement that there were many satisfactory alternatives to decorative and—here she paused—recreational items containing latex.

Other delegates took to the microphones to add their own spin on the discussion.

In the end, the convention-goers approved the item.

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