Teaching Profession

Miami-Dade Teachers Deserting Troubled Union

By Julie Blair — May 21, 2003 7 min read
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United Teachers of Dade is losing members as the FBI and local authorities continue a financial probe following an April 29 raid on the union’s headquarters. The situation is likely to worsen after last week’s revelation that the organization’s president of 40 years allegedly used union funds to pay for shopping sprees and spa vacations.

More than 260 teachers have requested that Miami-Dade County school officials stop withholding union dues in the days since news of the investigation surfaced in The Miami Herald, said John Schuster, a spokesman for the 362,000-student district. Before the raid, only one or two teachers made such requests each week, he said.

The school district withholds about $840 annually from each member’s paycheck and directs the money to the union, as is customary in other communities. Some make cash payments directly to the UTD.

Union watchers say the large number of defectors underscores the dissatisfaction felt by many members. Though considered one of the most progressive teachers’ unions in the country, UTD has been dogged by scandal for several years.

The number of members who permit the district to collect dues had plummeted even before the raid, from an estimated 17,300 in 2000 to about 14,000 as of April 18, according to the district.

‘Holding Pretty Firm’

But Annette Katz, a union spokeswoman, said that the union currently has 15,540 members on its rolls, when those who pay dues in cash are counted. Nearly 60 people have even joined since. She declined to provide numbers for previous years.

“We knew this would happen, but the numbers are less than one would expect,” she said. “Our people are holding pretty firm. They understand that the union itself is not a target. ... It is an individual.”

Ms. Katz added that those who drop out may also be doing so because they are frustrated with the lack of progress on contract negotiations with the school board and on gaining support for their desired education policies from the Florida legislature. Ending their membership in the union is the quickest way they have to articulate such displeasure, she said. The contract expires in June.

Meanwhile, observers say the scandal provides an opening for two competitors: the Miami-based Teacher Rights Advocacy Coalition, or TRAC, and the Professional Educators Network of Florida, or PEN, in Jacksonville. Both groups are trying to capture the hearts and pocketbooks of disgruntled UTD members.

Ira J. Paul, the membership coordinator for PEN, said the alternative organizations’ efforts have been “stymied” over the past two years by the district and United Teachers of Dade, which did not welcome competition. “But now we have a chance,” he said, “because the union house is collapsing.”

TheMiami Herald reported last week that the union’s chief financial officer blew the whistle on Pat L. Tornillo, the longtime president of the south Florida union and a grandfather of the national “new unionism” movement. James Angleton Jr., the CFO, reportedly told law-enforcement officials that Mr. Tornillo had failed to reimburse UTD for $155,000 in expenses stemming from antiques purchases, a stay in a five-star hotel in New York City, and a vacation in the Caribbean.

Mr. Angleton was put on administrative leave without pay last week, a move his lawyer charged was punishment for his tip off.

But Ms. Katz disputed that interpretation and said his duties will be taken over by the American Federation of Teachers, the UTD’s parent organization. The National Education Association, its other parent, is also involved in the “voluntary administratorship.”

Mr. Tornillo took a leave of absence following the FBI raid. (“Authorities Raid Teachers’ Union in Miami-Dade, May 7, 2003.)

The news comes two years after other allegations of impropriety. Dozens of UTD members quit the organization after they deemed a health-insurance deal struck by Mr. Tornillo to be questionable. (“40 Dade County Teachers Quit Union Over Insurance,” News in Brief, Sept. 12, 2001.)

Neither Mr. Tornillo nor Mr. Angleton could be reached for comment.

Battle to Bargain

Both TRAC and PEN promise advocacy for teachers at membership costs much lower than those for United Teachers of Dade—$425 and $125, respectively, a year. Neither is affiliated with any national organization, though they do share some viewpoints and research with the National Right to Work Committee, an opponent of mandatory unionism based in Springfield, Va., and the James Madison Institute, a think tank in Tallahassee, Fla.

TRAC leaders hope to find enough converts during the uproar to become the official bargaining unit for teachers in the fourth-largest school district in the nation, a goal they failed to achieve earlier this spring.

The group, now 2 years old, needs to collect 11,000 signatures from those in the 36,000-member bargaining unit to force state officials to call an election in 2006 or earlier, pending the outcome of the current union contract. Participants in the bargaining unit—which includes UTD members and nonmembers who work for the district—would then choose an advocate to negotiate salary and benefits with district officials.

“Per the decision of our board, I cannot discuss with anyone how many signatures have been collected, but it is progressing well,” said Damaris Perez Daugherty, the executive director of TRAC. She also declined to divulge its membership numbers.

But she added that TRAC’s e-mail reports go to 800 individuals, who then forward those messages to others.

While PEN has no ambitions to become the bargaining unit for district teachers, it is expanding membership and perceives itself as a professional association that is an alternative to unions, said Cathy DeMoisey, the group’s director of administration.

For years, PEN had only 40 or so members in Miami, but “hundreds” of teachers have gotten in touch with the organization in the past year, she said.

TRAC has been the more aggressive of the two alternative groups, deploying old-style tactics such as sickouts to garner attention, according to union watchers.

Ms. Daugherty said teachers merely took personal days, which is legal under Florida law.

TRAC is “going to town, and they’ll get a lot of members out of this [UTD scandal],” Brian Peterson, the editor of the Miami Educational Review, an online newsletter, said of TRAC. “They are becoming serious union people.”

TRAC and PEN are courting teachers like Mari Soto, a disgruntled art teacher who is now on disability leave from the Leisure City K-8 Center in Homestead. Tired of rumors and what she deems a union runaround, she quit United Teachers of Dade last week.

Ms. Soto said that at one point, she was making five calls an hour in an attempt to reach a UTD official regarding a grievance she had filed. “It was horrible,” she said. “I kept getting put on hold or getting a secretary who [didn’t send along messages], or getting voice mail.”

“With TRAC, it took only one phone call, and I got immediate answers,” she said.

The teacher notes that TRAC provided immediate aid without requiring membership, though she has since joined.

Ms. Katz of UTD called such an experience “an anomaly.”

Ignoring Hispanics?

Both TRAC’s and PEN’s conservative leanings appeal to an ever-expanding population of Hispanics in south Florida, a demographic group that has been largely ignored by United Teachers of Dade, said Dario Moreno, an associate professor of political science at Florida International University.

Many Hispanics, he said, support vouchers for private schools, for example, a concept vigorously opposed by the union.

“The union’s most fundamental problem is with ... appealing to Hispanic teachers,” Mr. Moreno asserted.

Union officials dispute the idea of a disconnect between UTD and the district’s Hispanic teachers.

Three of UTD’S 24 executive board members are Hispanic, Ms. Katz said, and 30 percent of the membership is Hispanic.

But Ms. Daugherty of TRAC noted that 60 percent of the school district employees that the UTD bargains for are Hispanic.

Still, some observers say that neither TRAC nor PEN can independently make UTD, long a political powerhouse statewide, irrelevant.

“Any one of these dissidents can’t do anything,” said Mike Antonucci, a union watcher from Elk Grove, Calif., who writes about such issues for his own online newsletter, “but if they were to get together, they might get somewhere.”

Meanwhile, TRAC and PEN are continuing their campaigns.

“UTD is trying to crush us,” Ms. Daugherty said, “but we’re winning the battle.”

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