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D.C. teachers fight union corruption

By Jeff Bale, WTU member | January 24, 2003 | Page 11

WASHINGTON--Impending indictments from the U.S. Attorney's office. A 47-page FBI affidavit. An independent audit revealing that $5 million was stolen by executive officers. This sounds like any day at the headquarters of Enron or WorldCom. Outrageously, this is the scandal unfolding inside the offices of the Washington Teachers Union (WTU).

An improper dues deduction last spring--to the tune of $800,000--tipped off parent union American Federation of Teachers that something fishy was going on. An initial review of the books led to President Barbara Bullock's resignation in late October, along with her assistant Gwen Hemphill and the union's treasurer James Baxter.

As the FBI began to investigate, the details started coming out. Over the last seven years, the three had bilked the union for some $2-3 million, including a 288-piece Tiffany's silver place setting, a $13,000 television, a $13,000 dry-cleaning bill, $50,000 in wigs and tens of thousands in shoes. Plane tickets, food, you name it--all doled out to the three and their families, all paid for with teachers' hard-earned money.

What's more, Hemphill is part of a longtime politically connected family in D.C. She co-chaired Mayor Anthony Williams' re-election campaign this year (in which he was taken off the ballot because of thousands of forged signatures on his election petitions). Her husband held a six-figure post in the city government, until the scandal broke and Williams stashed him away in the Department of Motor Vehicles to hide the connections.

The scandal has exploded against a backdrop of a historically inactive union. Three and a half years had gone by with no official meeting because so few members turned out. Of course, Bullock wanted it just that way, so no one would notice the millions flying out the door. But the scandal has invigorated many teachers to get active and take back their union.

The last two membership meetings have had over 150 teachers. They have been rowdy, as members have demanded answers from the interim president, Esther Hankerson.

In November, members passed a series of resolutions forcing the leadership to report the details of the scandal as well as a resolution against Bush's impending war in Iraq. In a special membership meeting January 13, some 200 teachers passed a vote of no confidence in the executive board and voted to send a delegation to the January 18 antiwar march.

There are signs that top union leaders may put the WTU under administration--the AFT's term for trusteeship. But the pressure for change in the union is coming from a loose network of teachers who have run opposition slates in past union elections.

This network is planning on posing two leading members, George Parker and Elizabeth Davis, as candidates in the May union elections. But for the elections to bring any lasting change, it will be crucial to do more than just clear up the financial scandal. Activists will have to pose--and show in practice--a much different vision of what our union should be.

We need a union that fights the school board when 25 teachers lose their jobs, as they did last October--and that fights every budget cut, as this past November when the city took back some $30 million. And we need a union that throws itself into stopping a war that will suck billions out of the coffers that should be funding our schools.

If our union takes up these fights, it will give its members a chance to turn the priorities of this city around.

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