Teaching Profession

Teamsters Woo Teachers In Baltimore Burbs

By Bess Keller — September 03, 2003 4 min read
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A Teamsters local in suburban Baltimore is courting teachers, an unusual move in a growing campaign by the labor union to add school workers to its membership mix.

A few teachers in the Anne Arundel and Baltimore County school districts approached the business agent for Teamsters Local 103, which organizes only public-service workers, after they and their colleagues learned they would not get pay raises negotiated last spring.

Officials in the two counties said their budgets were too tight to provide the additional money. But some teachers believed their locals, both affiliated with the National Education Association, should have fought harder for the raises. Moreover, they noted that one employee group in Anne Arundel County that did get the full hike it last negotiated, detention-center workers, is represented by the Teamsters local.

As schools geared up for their openings last week, union officials and teachers distributed fliers about the local.

“We’re seeing if there’s interest there,” said Dan Taylor, the business agent. “It looks to me as if we could certainly help teachers with some of [their] issues” should the Teamsters replace the other unions as the teachers’ bargaining agent.

20- Year History

Mr. Taylor acknowledged that the Teamsters, who represent almost 200,000 United Parcel Service workers, are not usually thought of as organizing teachers, and that he would face an uphill fight.

A spokesman for the 1.7-million member International Brotherhood of Teamsters said teachers come behind bus drivers, cafeteria and maintenance workers, and custodians in the number of school employees organized by the union. While recruiting teachers has been sporadic for the union, it has been organizing school support personnel for more than 20 years. About 205,000 members37,000 in schools work in the public-service sector, the fastest-growing among Teamsters and unions generally, added Don Owens, the spokesman.

The public sector has its own locals in the Teamsters organization, such as the Glen Burnie, Md., local pursuing the Baltimore-area teachers.

Outside of Baltimore, Maryland’s public school teachers are represented by affiliates of the NEA—at 2.7 million members, the nation’s largest union.

No Match?

Sheila M. Finlayson, the president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, or TAAAC, said she wasn’t surprised that the Teamsters were going after “a professional group like teachers,” which she called “a very valuable constituency.”

“But,” she added, “I would think they’ll have a hard time matching what we offer,” including professional development.

Robert Widra, a welding teacher at the Center for Applied Technology-South in Edgewater, Md., part of the 75,000-student Anne Arundel system, said that wasn’t entirely the point. “I’m not totally interested in the Teamsters, but I am tired of TAAAC,” said Mr. Widra. He is one of the roughly 1,000 teachers in the district who do not belong to the 4,100-member local. “It seems to me it’s there to defend poor teachers rather than fight for good teachers, and when they come to salary, they sort of back down.”

NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons said the competition in Maryland was not “something we’re overly concerned about.”

“Teachers want to be a part of a group advocating for public education, and they won’t get that from the Teamsters.”

The other national teachers’ union, the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers, is unlikely to be troubled by Teamsters’ recruitment efforts since, as fellow members of the AFL-CIO, the two groups have agreed not to “poach.” A spokesman for the AFT said he did not want to comment on the situation. The NEA and the AFT also have a no-raid agreement.

Labor experts point out that about a third of the workforce is unionized in the public sector, while the proportion is now less than 10 percent in private operations.

Public-sector unions enjoy some advantages over their private- sector counterparts both in the stability of the workforce they organize and their clout in negotiations, according to Michael A. Leeds, a labor economist at Temple University in Philadelphia. Those advantages have kept the public- sector unions relatively attractive to workers.

But now the public sector is feeling the squeeze from a troubled economy, introducing the kind of uncertainty industrial unions have had to face and giving unions willing to move in new directions possible openings among public servants. The Teamsters have an advantage in tackling the education workplace in that, for at least half of their 100-year-old history, they have organized workers in many lines of work and in different companies, unlike numerous other industrial unions, Mr. Leeds said.

‘A New’ Image

On the other hand, their tough-guy image, fed by several decades of corruption taint, could work against them.

Mr. Taylor of Teamsters Local 103, says the “go get ‘em” picture is outdated. “This is a new Teamsters,” he contended. “We go about things professionally.”

Nonetheless, support workers should be an easier sell than teachers, whose work is furthest removed from that of the private-sector Teamsters, according to teachers’ union watchdog Michael Antonucci.

In northeast California’s 190-student Surprise Valley district, the Teamsters have represented education support workers and teachers in separate bargaining units for more than a decade.

Alan Hopkins, a veteran principal who recently started at Surprise Valley Elementary School, said the change from NEA to Teamsters representation had not produced different results. “A union is a union,” he said. “They are dealing with the same issues.”

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