The American Federation of Teachers has unveiled a sweeping strategy to right the financial house of United Teachers of Dade, offering a desperately needed infusion of cash to the local union, slashing staff positions by more than a quarter, and reducing membership dues.
The 10-point recovery plan aims to clean up the books, which were allegedly pillaged by the Miami-Dade County affiliate’s longtime president, Pat L. Tornillo. AFT officials also hope to inspire confidence in UTD members, who have been opting out of the local group by the dozens since news of the probe was first reported.
“We are literally taking back our union,” Mark Richard, the AFT administrator who was assigned the task of leading the effort, said during a June 6 press briefing in Miami. The 15,000-member Miami-Dade union’s financial woes came to light this spring, when the FBI and local authorities raided union headquarters. (“Authorities Raid Teachers’ Union in Miami-Dade,” May 7, 2003.)
According to The Miami- Herald, Mr. Tornillo had spent at least $300,000 since late 2000 on extravagant trips and couture. Mr. Tornillo, who served UTD in various capacities for 40 years, immediately took a leave of absence. His pay was suspended several days later. He has not been charged with a crime.
Around the same time, two banks discussed calling in loans to UTD after union officials failed to make payments.
Union officials calculate that UTD is currently “several million dollars” in debt. The full extent of the fiscal troubles are, for now, unknown, said Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the 1.2 million-member AFT. UTD is also affiliated with the 2.7-million-member National Education Association.
The local’s fiscal predicament stems from low cash flow caused by declining membership and a hefty $13 million mortgage on its new headquarters, Mr. Richard said. The situation was so dire that loans were taken out to pay for day-to-day operating expenses.
As a first step in getting UTD out of debt, Mr. Wohl said, the AFT will provide $1.7 million in grants and loans. “We need to pay off loans that have been way overdue for some time,” Mr. Wohl added. “This will enable them not to have creditors barking through the door.” A forensic audit will also be done to track UTD spending over the past several years, he said.
To help restore faith in the local union, annual dues will be reduced by 10 percent, from $843 to $755, starting in the fall. (No dues are paid in the summer.) The move will cost the Miami-Dade union $1 million annually.
New revenue sources must also be generated, or expenses cut, to make ends meet.
For instance, the AFT is considering renting space in UTD’s Miami headquarters, opened in November 2002, or selling it altogether.
Staff positions have already been reduced from 52 to 38, with much of the work reapportioned to AFT employees, Mr. Wohl said.
Remaining staff members will have their salaries cut, saving $1.2 million annually. Acting UTD President Shirley Johnson had her $119,000 salary slashed to $89,000.
Meanwhile, the AFT is deploying a team of lawyers to investigate Mr. Tornillo’s alleged misdeeds and seek restitution.
“In a word, we’re going to go after the money,” Mr. Richard said.
Mr. Tornillo’s lawyer did not return a call for comment last week, and the veteran labor leader’s wife said her husband had been “told not to talk to the press.”
Mr. Richard emphasized that UTD will continue to carry out its union work during the overhaul, even acting as a leading participant in a high school tutoring program this summer.
‘A Radical Change’
Members of the rank and file, meanwhile, say they’re relieved to see a plan of action take shape.
“This is a radical change,” said Joseph F. Zawodny, a union steward for more than a decade and a chemistry teacher at the Maritime and Science Technology High School Academy in Miami. While noting Mr. Richard’s apparent qualifications for his tasks, Mr. Zawodny acknowledged that “it is going to be tough to ... make it respectable to be in the union again.”
About half the 29 union members at Mr. Zawodny’s public school quit UTD in the wake of the scandal, he said. That trend was also seen at other schools, the 365,000-student Miami-Dade County district reports. (“Miami-Dade Teachers Deserting Troubled Union,” May 21, 2003.)
“Even with the 10-point plan,” Mr. Zawodny said, “we are going to have trouble getting people back.”