With Declining Membership Rolls, New Orleans Union Clings to Life

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The United Teachers of New Orleans, once a powerful force in the city, is today a shadow of its former self.

Membership in the union is down to 300, a fraction of what it was before Hurricane Katrina, when the district operated 117 schools and 90 percent of the teachers, paraprofessionals, and clerical staff were union members. Only five regular public schools have reopened, even as charter schools have sprouted around the city.

Still, the union refuses to dissolve, and the American Federation of Teachers, its parent organization, continues to pump money into it.

Since the storm closed schools in the city and scattered teachers and students, the union has suffered a series of setbacks. In February, the school board fired all 7,500 teachers and other school workers. In June, the board voted not to renew its collective bargaining agreement with the union.

Then, in September, the board voted against a proposal to continue making payments into the health and welfare fund, an independent panel appointed by the union and the school board that pays claims to teachers, paraprofessionals, and other school employees.

“This is another way we are being disrespected, pushed to the side by school board members who do not communicate with [teachers and other school employees],” maintained Brenda Mitchell, the president of the union.

Despite the problems, she said, union leaders “have never stopped interacting or engaging with our members.”

The local union’s national parent also has stood firmly behind it. The AFT spent $350,000 in fiscal 2005-06 to keep the local afloat.

“It is clear that an overwhelming majority of teachers want to be unionized,” said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Nat LaCour, a former president of UTNO.

Charter School Rejection

Observers say that most, if not all, of the city’s charter schools have rejected collective bargaining—something Ms. Mitchell says she will work to change.

Administrators at charter schools say they make an effort to solve teachers’ problems as soon as they arise, reducing the teachers’ need for unionizing.

Brian Riedlinger, the chief executive officer of the Algiers Charter Schools Association, which runs five schools in the city, said teachers are still free to unionize. But, he added, there is no rush to do so.

Theresa Perry

“Teachers have a collective voice in our schools,” Mr. Riedlinger said, noting that he responds to teachers’ e-mails within 24 hours. “Most unions arise because of insensitive management, and we are working hard not to be insensitive,” he said.

But experts say teachers need more than the ability to communicate with administrators. “They should be able to collectively make decisions at the local level—both at the schoolhouse and at the professional level,” said Theresa Perry, a professor of education and Africana studies at Simmons College in Boston.

Ms. Perry, who is a member of an ad hoc group of national and local scholars and educators called the National Coalition for Quality Education in New Orleans, said the need for a union is great in New Orleans, where the number of black teachers has eroded since Katrina.

‘Part of the Problem’

The health and welfare fund provided teachers, aides, and other employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement with vision and dental services, as well as up to $400 a year in medical expenses not covered by insurance. That amount later increased to $700.

The union does not control the fund or the money in it. But an agreement between the board and the union says only employees covered by collective bargaining can receive benefits from the fund.

Scott Schneider, a lawyer retained by the school board, said the trust fund ceased to exist when the collective bargaining agreement expired.

The board is not looking to undermine the union with its decision to stop payments into the trust fund, he said. “The board feels it could better meet the employees’ health needs by taking the money and providing the benefits to employees instead of involving the trust fund,” he said.

Union officials say the trust fund has continued to pay out claims from its balance—it had $12 million as of July 31 and has spent more than $3 million in payouts to beneficiaries since. More claims are expected to be filed before a January deadline.

But union leaders see the board’s moves as a calculated attempt to keep the union—the first in the Deep South to win collective bargaining rights in 1974—from regaining strength.

“A frame was being created after the storm that the teachers had to be purged, that they were part of the problem. And that was the greatest wound that could have been inflicted on those individuals who spent their lives in those buildings while nine superintendents in 12 years paraded through at princely salaries,” said Steve Monaghan, the president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the New Orleans union.

Despite the setbacks, Ms. Mitchell said the union will continue to fight “any attempt to silence employees.”

“We are not a one-dimensional union. We work with the community. ... We work on elections,” she said. “We have been an active union for many years.”

Vol. 26, Issue 08, Page 9

Published in Print: October 18, 2006, as With Declining Membership Rolls, New Orleans Union Clings to Life
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