LA Lessons for Teacher Union Dissidents?

    The excerpts below are from an article in the LA Times about the dissident movement that took over the LA teachers union in the Feb. 2005 elections. The United Action slate did not have to face a massive machine-like Unity but still, their election was a surprise. Union rules were apparently democratic enough so that they could challenge for control of the Exec. Bd.

    Unity makes sure that they can control the board through at-large voting where the entire union votes including retirees for Ex bd at large (43), functional chapter (14) plus the 11 officers that are members of the Exec. Bd. That's 68 out of 89 leaving the opposition only a chance to win the elem (11) ms (5) and hs (6) EB positions. A very long shot to win all of these though New Action won the MS & HS in the early 90's. If the day comes that these 22 positions are won by the opposition, meaning serious outreach to elementary schools, it would be a sign of significant change in that these 22 positions represent the 80,000 active teachers. But it shows you how even if the opposition won the overwhelming support of the majority of teachers, they would only control 1/4 of the Executive Board.

    Unity democracy inaction.

    One of the interesting points about the featured activists is that one or both of them have political ties to some people in our local TJC and one of them was once in a teamsters group in California called Teamsters for a Just Contract.

    Another is the dicotomy in activist groups over the strict trade union (attention only to meat and potato issues) vs. the social justice questions. We have had that debate in ICE and things flared at one point on the blogs with UTP over the emphasis on some of these issues. The debate is ongoing, one of the best things about being involved in democratic groups, as opposed to being in Unity where your lips are sealed. And all too often, your mind.

    The full article is posted on my other blog, Norm's Notes

    A radical change for two union militants

    The former dissidents, now powerful insiders, shaped the tough tactics that got L.A. teachers more than just a raise.

    the deal's details — particularly its mandate for class size reduction and new job protections for union activists — reflect the long-standing emphasis by Pechthalt, Jordan and their allies on broadening UTLA's advocacy beyond salary and benefits.

    UTLA's more aggressive stance is personified by A.J. Duffy, the dapper, occasionally bombastic union president who communicates with the membership and tussles with the press. But according to people both inside and outside UTLA, the strategy has been shaped by the little-known Jordan and Pechthalt, self-described "union militants" who now hold key leadership posts.

    Jordan, a top staffer, and Pechthalt, a vice president, have long ties to activist politics and to Villaraigosa, a former UTLA staffer who once represented Pechthalt in a grievance against the Los Angeles Unified School District. Along with Duffy and two other allies, Pechthalt and Jordan were unexpectedly swept into power in elections two years ago by a membership frustrated at stalled contract talks.

    Their dissident status had been cemented over two decades. They staged demonstrations without the approval of union leadership. They supported bilingual education when California voters didn't, opposed standardized testing as it became popular and questioned whether homework was necessary. They published a newsletter criticizing the labor movement and their own union, particularly its focus on electing school board members to secure power and good contracts.

    Instead, they said, UTLA should reinvent itself as the base for a social movement that would engage in aggressive organizing of parents and communities, confront even friendly politicians and use militant tactics rarely employed by staid public employee unions.

    "UTLA has never realized its full potential, which is to organize at schools, with teachers, parents and the community," Pechthalt said. "We need to create a broader movement for public education."

    But this approach has caused alarm among some in the union and in political circles. Rank-and-file teachers and even other UTLA officers suggest that in their zeal to change the organization, the new union leaders have neglected some of the nuts and bolts of unionism.

    "UTLA is a labor union and has the structure and mechanisms and funding and politics of a labor union," said Warren Fletcher, a union chairman at City of Angels School downtown, who has been both ally and critic of Pechthalt and Jordan. "I'm concerned that we're approaching things from the perspective of some sort of grand movement."

    We both developed the same sort of emphasis, a first principle that the activity and organizing of the membership of a union, rather than the leadership, is the key to power," Brenner said.

    "Joel and I developed a critique of the narrow trade union perspective," Pechthalt said. "With the tightening of the economic pie, the only way to challenge that was to build a broad-based social movement for public education."

    During UTLA's last strike, a nine-day walkout in 1989, Pechthalt and Jordan organized a rally in Exposition Park with Villaraigosa's help. In 1992, Pechthalt led a one-hour wildcat strike at Manual Arts High School, which included 30 teachers and 1,500 students, to protest cuts. The district tried to discipline Pechthalt; Villaraigosa guided his successful grievance.

    About the same time, Pechthalt and Jordan began publishing A Second Opinion, a newsletter that frequently criticized UTLA. Among their contributors were other dissidents, including Julie Washington, now a vice president, and David Goldberg, now union treasurer.

    "We need to once more begin transforming the image of teachers as friendly Caspar Milquetoast do-gooders into a unified, mobilized and proud bunch of unionists," Pechthalt and Jordan wrote in August 2004.

    By then, Jordan was running a campaign to take over the board of directors and three officer positions with a slate of dissidents called United Action. The slate did not field a presidential candidate, and did not think Duffy, the only challenger to incumbent John Perez, stood a chance.

    Though campaigning for the union presidency on his own, Duffy found he agreed with Pechthalt and Jordan on the need for militancy; United Action endorsed Duffy, and vice versa.

    Their timing was good. In February 2005, the frustrated membership elected the entire slate, including Duffy.

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