School & District Management

Embattled Unions Make Progress in Regaining Control

By Linda Jacobson — November 16, 2004 3 min read
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After financial scandals that led to prison sentences for their presidents, the Washington Teachers Union in the nation’s capital and the United Teachers of Dade in Miami will elect new leaders over the next few weeks, one measure of returning the unions to local control.

The members of both locals are expected to begin casting ballots at the end of this month. Voting for WTU officers will run through Dec. 21, while a runoff for the UTD presidency is scheduled to conclude Dec. 10.

The American Federation of Teachers has been in charge of its District of Columbia affiliate since its former leader, Barbara A. Bullock, pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $4 million from members over seven years. Ms. Bullock, who spent much of the money on designer clothing and furs, is now serving a nine-year sentence in federal prison.

Last month, the WTU approved a new constitution, which George Springer, the administrator in charge of the organization, said will “provide for more membership participation.”

“There’s greater accountability—not just for the officers, but for the members,” he said last week.

The union will no longer have membership meetings, in which “any 100 people could make decisions for 5,000,” Mr. Springer said. Instead, it will hold an annual representative assembly.

“We want greater checks and balances,” Mr. Springer said.

The next step will be to hold the elections. Nominations were expected to be turned in from the members by late last week.

The federal case against four others who stand accused in the Washington scandal is not moving along quite so smoothly, however.

Because of pretrial arguments and other delays, a trial has not yet been scheduled for two other union officials who worked for Ms. Bullock, or for two accountants who are charged with falsifying documents to cover the crimes.

Fraud Debated in Runoff

In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where UTD members have been voting on a new contract with the 338,000-student school system, elections for officers were held last month. But because no one received a majority of the votes for a number of offices, including the presidency, a runoff was scheduled, beginning Nov. 29.

Karen Aronowitz

Members there will decide between Shirley B. Johnson, who received 47 percent of the votes, and Karen Aronowitz, a high school English teacher and language arts department chairwoman, who received almost 29 percent.

Shirley B. Johnson

Ms. Johnson, a 3rd grade teacher, served as the union’s secretary-treasurer under Pat L. Tornillo Jr., who pleaded guilty to defrauding the union and stealing roughly $650,000 between 1998 and 2001. Mr. Tornillo, who spent much of the money on travel, is serving a 27-month federal prison sentence.

That painful history has not totally been left behind.

Ms. Aronowitz charges that Ms. Johnson was partly to blame for the crisis and that she didn’t report Mr. Tornillo’s thefts. Ms. Johnson has maintained her innocence and said that she had little access to financial information.

‘Come Back Strong’

Trust in the 15,800-member union has not been completely broken, however, said Mark Richard, the AFT administrator for the UTD.

During what he said “couldn’t be a greater crisis,” about 1,000 members left the union, but roughly 4,100 new members have joined.

“People have really responded to an open, participatory union,” Mr. Richard added.

While it will continue to advise the new leaders, the AFT will officially end its control of the UTD in April.

Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the AFT, said that the Washington and Miami-Dade affiliates’ experience shows that “unions can police themselves.”

“They’ve really come back strong,” he said. “The answer to these kinds of crimes is more membership involvement.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2004 edition of Education Week as Embattled Unions Make Progress in Regaining Control

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