A fighting leadership for the WTU?

November 19, 2010

American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten breathed a sigh of relief November 17, when members of the Baltimore Teachers Union voted to accept a concessionary contract after rejecting a similar deal that the AFT had helped to negotiate.

The contract, modeled on similar bargaining agreements that Weingarten has helped to negotiate in school districts across the U.S., creates an elite pool of highly paid teachers but makes their jobs subject to evaluations based heavily on student test scores.

But in Washington, D.C., the backlash over a similar contract has thrown the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) into crisis. The incumbent president, George Parker, has become unpopular among WTU members for his collaboration with the anti-union agenda of outgoing Mayor Adrian Fenty and his former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Fenty lost a Democratic primary election earlier this year, in part because of the unpopularity of his school program. Rhee announced her departure shortly thereafter. Parker, however, tried to cling to the WTU presidency by repeatedly delaying the vote until AFT officials ordered him to move ahead.

Nathan Saunders, who is vice president of the WTU, opposed the concession--and was stripped of his full-time union position by Parker as a result. Nevertheless, Saunders won the first round of voting for the WTU leadership with 37 percent of the vote. Results of the second round of voting will be announced at the end of November.

Saunders spoke with Lee Sustar about his reasons for seeking the WTU presidency and his proposals for challenging corporate school reformers.

BEFORE WE get to the election, tell us what Mayor Adrian Fenty's agenda has meant for D.C. public schools.

INITIALLY MAYOR Fenty started out as a city council member on a positive note. He worked on a pioneering piece of legislation, a public school improvement act, which in the end amounted to about $5 billion worth of infrastructure improvements. That turned out to be very positive for the city.

When he became mayor his agenda changed quite a bit, to favoring mayoral control of the school structure, which in and of itself is problematic for Washington, D.C., because Washington, D.C., is not a state. And Washington, D.C., while it has many functions of a state, also has city functions as well. Hence, we don't have representatives with voting power in Congress, and we are, in essence, a province controlled by the United States Congress.

Taking away the school board--which was the first official form of self-governance in the District of Columbia--created some ideological problems as well as some practical problems. Washington, D.C., has a population of about 600,000 people with only a handful of elected offices available, and the school board was, in the past, a stepping stone for the city council.

Washington D.C. teachers rally against cuts and layoffs
Washington D.C. teachers rally against cuts and layoffs

Then there was Michelle Rhee, who clearly had, from the very beginning, some problems with her own credentials. She had spent only a limited amount of time in front of students as a teacher. She had no experience as a school administrator. There was an instance where she made claims of having made extraordinary improvements when she did teach for a short period of time in Baltimore, and that could not be substantiated by anyone. Teachers in the District later learned to refer to that as the "Baltimore miracle." Those were the types of claims that she made.

She came highly recommended by Joel Klein, the schools chancellor in New York. She came at a time in which a young Mayor Adrian Fenty was relying upon advice from Mayor Michael Bloomberg out of New York, and Mayor Fenty was calling himself a "big city mayor."

RHEE ALSO had the backing of a whole series of people in the corporate school reform movement. What's your take on that?

THIS MOVEMENT, to a large extent, embraced her extraordinary claims and subsumed some of her ideas because she was available and she was high profile. One of the things that Michelle Rhee is excellent at is promoting Michelle Rhee.

WHEN DID you first begin to get alarmed by her proposals?

I WAS involved very early on with a cadre of teachers and officials from New York who forecasted exactly how bad Michelle Rhee would be. They did not believe that she was the proper choice for District of Columbia and they related that to me and George Parker, about her role as an expert witness for Joel Klein in New York. From the very beginning, I had some information, and Parker had the same information that I had.

WHAT WAS the issue that caused you to break with Parker over his approach to Rhee?

IT WAS an accumulation of many things. I think that Michelle Rhee got inside help from the union in terms of the termination of teachers. For example, she came to the District and got on top of the 90-day plan, which was essentially a way to terminate teachers within three months under the old contract.

Well, she mastered it very quickly, suggesting that she had internal help as to how to manipulate the process. Michelle Rhee spoke publicly about the fact that she needed a new mechanism in the form of a new contract to get rid of teachers more quickly. Parker's response, time after time after time, was, "Well there's a 90-day plan, She can get rid of teachers after 90 days." He said that publicly many times.

The next thing was that the union had become reactionary, as opposed to promoting an agenda. Washington, D.C., under Rhee's administration as chancellor, was quite different than that of the previous chancellor, Clifford Janey. Janey was more methodical, more organized and more structured than Michelle Rhee. Progress was steady, but sure.

With Michelle Rhee, it was all over the place. Schools under Janey improved, without a doubt. And there's a valid argument that the improvement we're seeing today is a result of Janey's initiatives, and not Rhee's. Under Rhee, not just teachers, but teachers' aides, janitors and grounds people were constantly being held accountable for the system, but without the resources to get the job done.

TELL US about the contract negotiations and the IMPACT evaluation plan. You opposed that from the outset, is that correct?

WE ALWAYS get problems with contract negotiations. Even with Janey, the contract was also overdue by two years, I believe. But with Michelle Rhee, one of the things that created a problem was that Parker would not create a contract negotiation team, which is traditional for labor unions. And that was also a major problem for me.

Schools are incredibly complex. We've got 4,000 workers who are members of the union who do jobs as different as computer technology teacher, pre-K teacher, school psychologist, social worker and math teacher. My view has always been to construct a contract negotiating team as large as is necessary--and it might be very large--so that we could adequately cover all the bases.

Even the contract team that Parker ultimately put together after I put pressure on him really amounted to token people who would neither disagree nor raise any questions if something was going on that was contrary to the interests of the rank-and-file. So we did fall out over that.

As opposed to advocating for the teachers, he appeared to be in Michelle Rhee's pocket. For example, here we had a union president inviting management to the union meetings to sell the union members on management proposals. I thought it was preposterous!

That proposal was for a two-tier system. I'll never forget, we almost had 600 teachers in the auditorium. They were fuming after learning that only one group of teachers would get bonuses and pay increases, and the other group would get nothing at all.

After that happened, the opposition was so successful that [Parker] abandoned it, didn't even put it on the table. Subsequently, the AFT got involved when it was clear that Parker would not be able to get any contract signed without the direct assistance of the international union.

THE CONTRACT was eventually passed. What is your estimation of AFT President Randy Weingarten's role in that?

I THINK Randy had her own agenda in many regards--to maintain an image that she wanted to create nationally as some type of avant-garde labor leader. And that has profound repercussions. AFT locals are all over the map with teacher evaluations, pay-for-performance, tenure security, and charter schools. There doesn't appear to be a single uniform position of the AFT.

Although convention assemblies have addressed the issue, some locals appear to be embracing charters, others appear to be fighting against them. Others are embracing teacher evaluations that support teacher salaries being directly linked to teacher evaluation scores, others are fighting adamantly against them. And so it appears in many regards that AFT locals are ahead on some of the major questions. One minute, Randy is for; another minute, she is against. She is absolutely confusing.

HOW DID Rhee's IMPACT evaluation system get passed?

IMPACT GOT passed by Parker arguing that he couldn't do anything about it, and that it didn't need to get passed. It just needed to be ignored. And IMPACT is going to be a major deciding issue in this WTU presidential race. No question about it.

I figure it is evident that IMPACT was negotiated, because a significant portion of the contract is dependent upon IMPACT. For example, if you look at the pay-for-performance issues, that's based on evaluation tools. The evaluation tool is IMPACT. If you look at the section that deals with performance base, the performance base tool is IMPACT. It's impossible to negotiate and or discuss these matters, so I would argue that IMPACT was, in fact, negotiated.

WHAT DO you think about the fact that they had to go get private money to fund this higher tier of pay? Is that sustainable?

IT'S ABSOLUTELY not sustainable, which is the problem. The issue is definitely a philosophical position and a practical position for me. Public goods ought to be paid with public dollars. If our community deems education to be important, then our community ought to express the importance of education by paying for it out of public dollars, i.e., tax dollars.

And when you get private entities involved, the fact is that the mere nature of a private enterprise is founded in principles of competition and self-interest. It is impossible for private groups or individuals to abandon their self-interest in their allocation of capital resources. While it may not be glaringly apparent today what that self-interest is, it will soon surface--and what concerns me is the conflict between that self-interest and the public good.

CLEARLY, THE AFT leadership seems to think this is a positive development.

I THINK it's a temporary development, and I think it could be very dangerous, very dangerous. I thought it was weird that the WTU was getting dollars from the private sector to fund support of their collective bargaining agreement.

I thought it was even weirder that the AFT has established a fund with the private sector to fund AFT-related issues--and it includes the Wal-Mart Corporation. I sit on a labor council with the United Food and Commercial Workers union, whose representatives are fighting Wal-Mart daily, and my labor union is accepting millions of corporate dollars from the Wal-Mart Corporation and the Bill Gates foundation.

CAN YOU explain how WTU President Parker tried to prevent you from running for union president?

IN JANUARY 2010, I announced to the public that I was going to be running for WTU president in May. That's the race that Parker would never allow to happen. In fact this WTU race was canceled about four times, before I had to ultimately go to court in order to force an election. Parker did everything that he could possibly do to avoid having an election in WTU, including suing the American Federation of Teachers, who ultimately saw the need to have an election as well.

In the only contract that Parker got signed with Michelle Rhee, he was able to install what we call a "Nathan Saunders provision." That provision required the leave of absence for union officials to be renewed annually by the president of the WTU. So he simply refused to sign my renewal for my leave of absence. He put me in a position where I was either required to go back to the classroom or face termination from my job as a teacher in the District of Columbia public schools.

Mind you, if I was terminated as a teacher, I would lose my right to be a member of the Washington Teachers Union, and I would not be able to run for office, so in essence, that forced me out of the union elected office.

DID YOU appeal to the AFT about Parker's behavior?

ABSOLUTELY. PARKER has been sanctioned by AFT for his behavior in this race--using union resources and union personnel for the campaign. And he just keeps doing it. So I've been convinced for a very long time that the only way WTU matters are going to be corrected is simply to beat Parker in the battle, even when he cheats.

YOU WON the first round of the vote, but on a very low turnout. What's your analysis of that?

LABOR UNION races unfortunately have low turnouts. I know for a fact that part of the problem was that challenged ballots were never counted. Part of the problem pertained to the fact that the race had been rescheduled so many times. So the members, in many cases, didn't even know whether a race was going to happen, because this race was supposed to have happened in May.

A more powerful argument is this: Parker has run roughshod over this union for the last three years. Members have not been in the habit of engaging in participatory democracy in union activities. And many members remarked that "why are we going to vote now? He's been running the damn thing the way he wanted to run it for three years."

Democratic participation is something that you practice. You don't just pick one day out of three years. You've have to have been practicing it for the prior 36 months. So I'm not worried. I think more participation only means that the results are going to be that much more glaring.

You've got to understand, in this race, two out of three teacher voters voted against Parker. I got the largest vote at 37 percent out of four slates. I think that's very powerful when you have an incumbent with a union treasury loaded with millions of dollars and a union staff.

WHAT SIGNIFICANCE will the WTU union election have for the AFT as a whole?

THE WTU is significant for the labor movement at this particular point, because it is a prime example of how to deal with an abusive mayor and chancellor. What do you do? We showed what you do--you vote them out of office. That's very important. We had the symbol of the teacher bashers of the United States in Washington, D.C., in the form of Michelle Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty. We got rid of Fenty, and Michelle Rhee quickly fell to the wayside. So, that is a very powerful message in and of itself.

Now, I think the significance of the WTU involvement with AFT is that there will be a combination of [reformers in charge of] the WTU and the Chicago Teachers Union, led by Karen Lewis.

We are showing that we are capable of making important decisions. Our election will indicate that the real direction will come from the people under us, not above us. And I'm perfectly comfortable with that.

Randi Weingarten knows where I stand on critical issues, like pay-for-performance and charter schools. She knows that I'm prepared to lead this union in a direction that is different than some of the other more passive and conciliatory unions.

Transcription by Matt Korn and Karen Domínguez Burke.

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