Teaching Profession

State of the Unions

By Julie Blair — February 25, 2004 14 min read
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Corrupt leadership took two big-city teachers' unions to the brink of despair and financial ruin. Two new leaders have been given the task of bringing them back.

You could very nearly hear union foes playing taps when law-enforcement agencies swept down on the leaders of two of the nation’s most prominent local teachers’ unions. Both had betrayed their colleagues by stealing huge sums of money.

The Washington Teachers Union and its Miami cousin, United Teachers of Dade, were hemorrhaging money. The membership was indignant. The feds were rifling through union files to build extensive criminal investigations. Congress called Sandra Feldman on the carpet: Lawmakers wanted to ask the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the parent organization of the WTU and the UTD, how and why the scandals occurred.

The anti-union forces rubbed their hands together with glee. The two locals would certainly survive, but critics said their power would be severely diminished.

Despite the code- blue warning, it appears that the organizations have been resuscitated, although the prospects look better for one than the other. The two “administrators” dispatched by the AFT to practice emergency medicine report that the state of the unions is strong—and growing stronger.

George C. Springer, recruited to right the wrongs in the District of Columbia, and Mark Richard, now at the helm in Miami-Dade County, say they are rebuilding their respective financial houses, restoring credibility with members as well as the public, and generating enthusiasm for the labor movement.

Not everybody agrees. While some in Washington are simply vague about the progress made, others are downright angry.

Union members complain that Springer fades into the background during meetings.

The AFT tapped George C. Springer to restore financial stability and credibility to the Washington Teachers Union.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

“I had assumed that this trusteeship would restore participatory democracy in this union,” says Elizabeth A. Davis, who teaches technology at John Philip Sousa Middle School. “It has not.”

The situation is far better in Miami, UTD members report, but plenty of work lies ahead here, too.

The structure is not yet stable, says Funmilayo Laosebikan, who teaches 4th grade at John G. DuPuis Elementary School. “A lot of people are not ready to invest their time yet” into making the Miami-Dade union more functional, she adds.

To understand the difficulties of turning around the two disgraced locals, it is essential to grasp the complexity of their woes.

First, consider the crimes committed in Washington and exposed in December 2002.

Barbara A. Bullock admitted in October 2003 to leading an embezzlement scam in which she helped steal more than $4.6 million from 1995 until 2002—throughout her tenure as president. Instead of paying the WTU’s rent, employee-pension payments, payroll, taxes, and AFT dues, Bullock funneled union money into her own pockets, allegedly with the help of four others. The union leader was sentenced on Jan. 30 to nine years in prison.

Just five months after the Washington scandal broke, headlines blared about corruption in Miami.

Pat L. Tornillo Jr., who had served the UTD in various positions for 40 years, including that of president, admitted last August to stealing $650,000 from the 14,500-member union from 1997 until 2003. An AFT audit released a month later, however, put the amount at $3.5 million.

Like Bullock, Tornillo used union credit cards to pay for personal expenses, including exotic vacations. He also had UTD officials reimburse him for supposed union purchases placed on his own credit cards. In addition, the former leader set up a company along with two former colleagues to market professional- development classes to union teachers. Tornillo skimmed off money from the venture between 1993 and 2003.

Under a plea agreement, Tornillo was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison. He also must return $650,000 to the UTD and pay $350,000 in back taxes as well as interest and penalties.

‘The members need to understand the ins and outs of what is happening. We need to make sure what happened before won't happen again.’

The members need to understand the ins and outs of what is happening,” Springer says. “We need to make sure what happened before won’t happen again As the scandal unfolded, AFT officials discovered the Miami-Dade County union was nearly insolvent, largely as a result of declining membership and a $13 million mortgage on the new UTD headquarters, which overlooks the crystalline waters of Biscayne Bay. To get by, the union took out loans to pay day-to-day operating expenses. At the same time, the American Bank and Trust in Lake Wales, Fla., called in a $1 million loan.

Teachers in Miami and Washington alike were devastated and demoralized by their circumstances.

At the 5,000- member WTU, which had a history of apathy as a result of Bullock’s autocratic rule, educators grew even more uninterested in unionism.

“This seems to be a long process, and I just don’t want to dwell on it,” says Tanya Copeland, who teaches prekindergarten at Martin Luther King Elementary School in the nation’s capital. “I’m not a political person—I’m a productive person. Teaching and learning comes first.”

Morale wasn’t any better in Miami, even though educators here had long enjoyed a strong, active organization. They began defecting to competing professional groups or dropping their memberships in what is also an affiliate of the National Education Association. The NEA has left most of the decisions up to the AFT.

Enter Springer and Richard, who were charged with untangling the finances and rebuilding credibility—all within 18 months, as federal law allows. In extenuating circumstances, however, their stays can be extended.

Both men have accomplished many of the same things—helping their unions repair finances and communication—while employing many of the same strategies. Still, if righting the locals were a popularity contest, Richard would win hands down.

Many members of the union say the man chosen to lead the WTU was a mismatch from the get-go.
For starters, George Springer had a reputation to overcome. Many perceive the 71-year-old as the ultimate AFT insider, more interested in protecting the national organization than in helping their local. For example, his background includes running AFT Connecticut for 22 years and serving 13 as an AFT vice president. The loyalties to the parent union were made more apparent, critics say, when Springer accepted $4.6 million from the AFT to help pay the WTU’s bills and brought in national staff members to assist on a variety of WTU issues.

Position: WTU administrator
Age: 71


Northeast regional director, American Federation of Teachers, 2001-2003;

President, Connecticut Federation of Educational and Professional Employees, 1979-2001;

Teacher of graphic arts and African-American history, New Britain, Conn., 1959- 1979.

Moreover, many contend that the administrator’s temperament is not aggressive enough for a city where politics is the main industry. The quiet diplomat stands out in his impeccable suits and brightly colored neckties, but otherwise does little to distinguish himself in meetings, members complain. When questioned, they say, his answers tend to be ambiguous. “I have worked with him since Day One,” says Davis, the technology teacher, “and when he doesn’t like my questions, he says, ‘No more questions.’ ”

The AFT stands behind Springer. “He’s very workmanlike, knows what needs to be done, and doesn’t seek the attention for it,” responds Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the 1.5 million-member national organization.

What Springer has done so far is pay most of the bills, advocates say, put new accountability procedures in place, rebuild the governance structure, and try to open up the channels of communication.

Financially, the Washington union has nearly recovered, the leader points out, stemming in part from the AFT bailout.

The AFT deployed teams of money managers to make sure the books are accurate, audits complete, and most bills paid, Springer says. The local union, however, still owes money to WTU pension funds. And it remains 10 months behind in the payment of AFT dues, approximately $600,000.

The new accountability procedures have been set up to ensure that theft does not recur. It includes a member-led committee that will be a watchdog over the financial processes. To open up the process further, most financial documents have been posted on the local’s Web site; those that are not can be inspected at union headquarters.

“The members need to understand the ins and outs of what is happening,” Springer says. “We need to make sure what happened before won’t happen again.”

Many fiscal decisions, he points out, have been made by committees. For example, when the District of Columbia school board made noises in the past few months about extending the teachers’ contract beyond the September 2005 expiration date, Springer says he immediately pulled together members to talk about it.

“The members said, ‘No way,’ ” and that message was communicated to school officials, the administrator says.

All of this is part of a new governance structure put in place over the past several months, according to Springer. Gone are top-down commands from high-up officials. Now, forums of WTU volunteers are expected to debate issues and hammer out policies.

Springer says he has tried to increase participation by the rank and file in other ways as well.

In response to criticism that union meetings were held too early in the day and were too inaccessible, he began experimenting with holding smaller forums at various locations throughout Washington.

Written materials have also been upgraded. The WTU newsletter—discontinued under Bullock—was resumed. A second was started for building representatives. The WTU is operating a telephone hotline to inform members about the outcomes of meetings and upcoming events.

As evidence of the success of such mobilization efforts, Springer points to the throngs of members to fight important changes in teacher contracts over the past several months. This winter, for example, 2,000 teachers turned out to protest proposed teacher layoffs and cuts in promised pay raises—considerations ultimately abandoned by the school board.

That’s not good enough, respond many members, who are dissatisfied with the steps Springer has taken. For one, they feel that the mini-meetings are a way to keep the members from coming together to express their views. Further, they worry that the communication tools are incomplete, and that the rally turnout was inspired by individual desperation over job security rather than dedication to unionism.

“I’m not seeing change,” says Laureen Smith-Butler, a building representative who teaches English and reading at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School, her voice as salty and gray as the slushy roads in the Northeast.

Union members are also critical of the revamped financial safeguards.

“Members of the WTU are no more informed about how their money is being spent than before,” contends George Parker, a math teacher at Charles William Eliot Junior High School who plans to run for union president in the next election. “We could have money being stolen now, and we’d have no idea.”

Nor are they satisfied with the committees that are supposed to be writing policies and overseeing practices.

“A lot of committees have been formed which are not really active,” says Robert C. Zugby, a science teacher at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School. “The impression is that these organizations were a public relations ploy.”

Springer says he’s done his best to make union practices transparent and to explain what’s going on.

“People are welcome to come in and take a look,” he says in the patient manner he likely used while teaching elementary school years ago. “I haven’t said no to anyone.”

The process of engagement is slow, Springer acknowledges, which is to be expected when you overhaul the structure and culture of a union.

Though not surprised, Springer sighs when confronted with the complaints of the people he was sent to serve. “People are looking to place blame,” he asserts. Emotions of that intensity are to be expected following such a significant breach of trust. If only some members could set aside their anger and mistrust, he says, they would “see a lot of progress.”

The atmosphere is as different in Miami as the weather. A near love-in for Mark Richard is taking place under sunny skies and swaying palm trees. A bear of a man with a rowdy moustache, Richard has a manner to match. His acceptance is helped, too, by the fact that he’s a local: The labor lawyer has represented 50 different unions and is now on leave from Miami-Dade Community College, where he teaches law to paralegals.

Position: UTD administrator
Age: 50


Professor, Miami-Dade Community College, 1977-2003

Labor lawyer, partner, Phillips, Richard & Rind, Miami, 1997-2004;

President, Miami-Dade Community College faculty union, 1998-2004.

Trained under the legendary labor activist Cesar Chavez, Richard has relied on nervy media stunts to energize union members and make the UTD message known. During contract talks last fall, he hired an airplane to fly over the school board’s headquarters, instructed educators to chase the school board chairman from meeting to meeting, and arranged a scavenger hunt in which more than 200 teachers caravaned around town “looking” for extra dollars to finance benefits packages. The school board and chairman eventually relented.

Richard, 50, insists that his success hasn’t been based on gimmicks.

“I have an absolute 100 percent commitment to transparency,” the leader says, hunched over a conference table, an untied blue necktie tossed around his collar. “People were so thirsty for honest, direct information.”

The first item on his agenda was to get the books in the black, an ongoing job. The AFT loaned the UTD $4 million and appropriated another $1.5 million to help the local. Unlike Washington members, nobody in Miami-Dade County seemed to be bothered by the arrangement.

Only days after assuming the administratorship, Richard laid out his strategy: New revenue sources had to be discovered, services cut, staff positions reduced from 52 to 38. Those that remained at headquarters had their salaries slashed. Officials are also considering renting space in the UTD’S office or selling the building altogether.

Like Springer, Richard put in place a new fiscal-accountability system. The budget- and check-approval process now includes several pairs of eyes. Financial statements are posted on the Web site for all members and are available for public viewing.

Richard “held a financial meeting and opened up the books,” said Maxine Aebi, who teaches 3rd grade at the North Dade Center for Modern Languages. “At every meeting, he informs us of our status.”

Decisions are made by “action groups,” rather than handed down by the head of the union. Some 400 educators now participate in such forums; in the past, such activities were handled by Tornillo and his direct staff members.

“I was never included before,” says Beverly Heller, a veteran educator who teaches at the Fienberg-Fisher Elementary and Adult Community School in Miami. “Once [Richard] opened the door, I joined whatever committees they offered.”

She sits on seven.

“I can do it, and they want me to do it,” Heller says. “They want me.”

Richard also set in motion the overhaul of official communications with members.

The UTD’s award-winning publication was redesigned to be less expensive and to include more members’ voices. Telephone hotline updates are taped weekly. The union’s Web site, which had about 500 hits per week before Richard’s tenure, now receives 5,000 weekly, thanks to the additional information posted.

The union also seems to have regained the political clout it had lost in the wake of the scandal.

The UTD was victorious when the school board signed a contract with the district last fall that increased teacher pay substantially and provided a hefty benefits package.

“They’ve shown they are a tough organization that can win the fight,” says Brian Peterson, the editor of the online newsletter Miami Education Review.

While the overall confidence of the membership is tough to track, one measurable variable is membership. Unlike in states in the North, Midwest, and West Coast where teachers must pay dues or fees to their collective bargaining agent, teachers in Florida can opt in or out by choice.

When news of Pat Tornillo’s misdeeds broke last May, 700 teachers dropped their memberships. Since then, 1,500 members have joined, Richard says. The organization is actively courting “2,004 new members in 2004,” through a variety of strategies that include appealing to conservative Hispanics—a growing group in Dade County. And for the first time ever, the UTD has set up a Republican political action committee.

Nevertheless, some members fret that the structure Richard has put in place is not strong enough to endure following union elections. And when he leaves in November, they worry that a power vacuum will replace him.

“The point is to build up internal leaders,” says Gary Holbrook, a social studies teacher at Felix Varela Senior High School. “I’m pretty concerned about that.”

Richard agrees. But, he adds, he has several more months to shore up that aspect of the new UTD.

AFT officials say they are pleased with the progress to date in both cities.

“We surprised ourselves with how effective the transformations have been,” says Wohl, the spokesman. “We had a chance to ... re-create and rebuild the unions.”

And that, Springer and Richard agree, is cause for a trumpet voluntary—even if it has a few flat notes.

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.

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