By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
Contract talks between the District government and the Washington Teachers' Union, now in their 18th month and under a mediator, are escalating tensions within the union's leadership.
In meetings and on teacher blogs, WTU President George Parker has come under increasingly bitter criticism for his leadership in the labor dispute, which pits the union against Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in what is widely regarded as a nationally significant battle over how to improve public schools.
Some union leaders describe Parker as an autocrat who has kept them in the dark on key aspects of the talks, which are stalled over performance pay and job security. Parker's critics are also upset about what they say is his indifference to the District's reassignment of a senior union official to teaching duties, a move they contend was punitive because top officers typically are granted leaves of absence.
"What we're seeing is the union being run by someone who is acting of late like a dictator," said Candi Peterson, a member of the union's board of trustees and author of The Washington Teacher blog.
A meeting last Tuesday evening of the WTU's representative assembly -- made up of union leaders from each school -- was disrupted when Parker's chief of staff, Clay White, had to be separated from Jeff Canady, a union activist and outspoken critic of Parker's.
Witnesses said Canady, who teaches at Emery Education Campus in Northeast Washington, was questioning Parker about Nathan Saunders, the union's general vice president, who was sent back to teaching duty. Parker ruled Canady out of order. When Canady persisted, White rushed him and began to threaten him with bodily harm, according to attendees.
A verbal confrontation continued in a hallway at McKinley Technical High School, the site of the meeting, and D.C. police were called, several teachers said. There were no arrests, and White e-mailed an apology to Canady, who said the confrontation was not serious. He was less charitable about Parker's leadership.
"What he's doing is completely illegal and unethical," Canady said. "George has basically disenfranchised the union members."
Saunders, who often represents teachers in grievance hearings with school officials, has clashed with Parker repeatedly since they were elected to their posts in 2005. He unsuccessfully sued Parker in federal court last year, alleging that the union president violated free speech guarantees by attempting to bar him from speaking for the union. He has denounced Parker for allowing Rhee to introduce her controversial salary proposal to teachers last summer. Rhee's proposal requires teachers who want the top tier of raises and performance bonuses to give up tenure protections for a year, exposing them to dismissal without appeal.
Saunders is expected to challenge Parker for the presidency of the 4,000-member union next year.
Parker initially described the issue of Saunders's leave of absence as something for Saunders to work out with the school system and told him in an e-mail that he had brought the situation on himself. But Parker changed his tone late last week and said he had signed papers asking D.C. schools to retroactively approve Saunders's leave. He denied any attempt to undermine a political rival and said he only wanted to move on.
"It's an unfortunate negative distraction that we need to put behind us," Parker said.
Parker's supporters said that Saunders has been ineffective and inattentive as vice president and that his attendance at staff meetings has been irregular.
"He comes and goes as he pleases," said John Tatum, the union executive board's parliamentarian.
Parker faces other difficulties. A recent poll found widespread dissatisfaction among the rank-and-file with the WTU's performance. He has also been challenged about the increasingly dominant role played in contract talks by Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, WTU's national parent organization.
Parker attributed the criticism to a relatively small group of union dissidents, but he acknowledged that dissension has damaged the union at a time when it is trying to present a united front.
"The internal fighting has had a negative impact on membership confidence, and we have to find a way to work around that," he said.
Weingarten's status became an issue at a WTU executive board meeting last month. Saunders and Peterson said she sought the board's endorsement as the chief union negotiator. "She said she wanted the authority to go in with Rhee alone," Peterson said.
Weingarten and Parker vehemently deny the claim. They said that the board had approved a motion supporting Weingarten's role and that they wanted to have it reaffirmed.
"I wanted to make sure that they still wanted me involved," Weingarten said in an e-mail Friday. "George Parker and I both reaffirmed that he is still the principal negotiator."
A new poll, conducted for the AFT last month by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, found that the rank-and-file mood had improved since an August 2008 survey but that there was still significant unhappiness with the union. It found that 62 percent of members think the union is doing a "poor" "not good" or "just adequate" job representing teachers' interests.