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Government and People
Why Teachers Protested and Where Our Movement Goes from Here!
Nathan A. Saunders, Teacher, Nasaunders@aol.com
Organizing statement of the Strong Teachers' Grassroots Movement
November 24, 2002
On November 21, 2002, as organized acts of civil disobedience, demonstrations occurred at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) offices simultaneously. Both WTU and AFT were surprised and immediately concerned. With placards and banners raised in the rain and cold, teachers marched and chanted, "$200,000 A YEAR FOR 'K' STREET . . . TEACHERS AND CHILDREN CANNOT AFFORD K ST"; "AFT DOES NOT RUN WTU"; "You stole our money, NOW GIVE IT BACK NOW"; "NEW ELECTIONS NOW OR COURT TOMORROW"; and "My doctors said NO TO WTU."
Almost 50 public school teachers from east of the Anacostia River to Georgetown thundered in unison concerns that union members are not receiving quality collective bargaining or advocacy services. Protesting teachers were multi-disciplined, multi- cultural, male and female; active teachers, and retired teachers. They were special education teachers, speech and language specialists, elementary and high school teachers. The chants were derived from the fact that the WTU pays for lavish office space on K Street, NW, while many classroom teachers work in abysmal conditions. The more than $200,000 that the WTU pays annually on its office space lease is burdensome for our membership. Classroom teachers cannot afford the expensive fees to park in WTU's high rent district. Preferred physicians are refusing to accept union members because WTU fails to pay our healthcare bills in a timely manner And yes, there have been many references made to the $800,000 missing union funds and the increased dues for a raise that classroom teachers have not received. Teachers sometimes mused in a sense of solidarity as there were more chants and frustrations than time to echo them. As teachers left the protest to return to their classroom responsibilities, all felt better than when they first arrived, and one step closer to improving classroom conditions and their union.
WTU is a union where the elected paid executives have absconded as the subpoenas are delivered concerning financial improprieties. The recent revelations are the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Presently, WTU is leaderless, rudderless, and without the character or capacity to be of service to classroom teachers. The Strong Teachers' Grassroots Movement is centered on reinvigorating union membership to activism. Tomorrow, a teacher will need advocacy services and be at a disadvantage as a result of his or her affiliation with WTU in its present state. As an organizer, classroom teacher, and a union member, I know quality education services are diminished when teachers are frustrated and feeling defenseless. This grassroots movement is designed to be teacher-focused.
We are also aware that some individuals who want to be candidates for recently vacated seats are jockeying at the present. All are cautioned to be wary of those who are excited to wear your oppressors shoes, and to them we state emphatically that now is not the time! Now is the time to organize, communicate, and engage the educational stakeholders and not the time for candidates to run for office. Now is the time for workers in comradeship and activism to solidify our purpose. For too long the value of classroom teachers have been ignored because we have not lifted one another or our profession. A weak union has weak teachers who produce weak students. Presently, classroom teachers and other union members are not significant participants in the educational ball game. Valuable senior teachers are undermined and treated poorly as they transition into retirement and new enthusiastic teachers are insulted and trapped by a demanding system that does not continue to invest in them as valuable assets.
WTU's affliction is the cumulative results of four elements. The first element is the Bullock, Hankerson, Hemphill, and Baxter financial mismanagement fiasco. This is the only element being highlighting by the short-sighted. Their alleged misdeeds may be factually based but it is not the whole story. The story is that our union is broken and only the membership can fix it. The extent of misdeeds will soon be published in this on- line magazine and throughout other media sources. Teachers must not wallow in this mud; we must move forward with activism, determination, and commitment to the preservation and enhancement of our rights as teachers.
The second element underscores that fact that the AFT has stood by idly and allowed the gradual demise of our union while collecting large fees for services our membership has not received. The AFT's fiduciary duty was breached when they did not protect the interest of the membership. How many times has AFT used its marketing machine to hide problems at WTU only to later emerge as its savior? All former WTU administrations have been controlled by the AFT and upon asserting autonomy they have been culled. It is possible that the AFT provided the noose for the unfortunate situation in which Bullock, Hankerson, Hemphill, and Baxter find themselves.
The third element is that the WTU Executive Board and the Board of Trustees are responsible for not following our constitution and not understanding their duties and responsibilities. When the debts failed to be paid in a timely manner, our credit and clout deteriorated. Reasonable supervision and review did not exist; therefore, fraud and graft occurred as they languished. The question has surfaced as to why is there a need to purge the leadership. The answer is not complicated. The WTU Executive Board must be purged if teachers are to have a chance of redirecting themselves and achieving better working conditions and dignity in our schools. Trust must only be extended to the extent of truth and honesty. This board's time to leave is now, not later. Does this mean trusteeship from AFT? No. The only task to be completed is a transition plan to handle the day to day affairs of the WTU before a full election of new officers.
The last element is the general membership. We failed ourselves by not attending membership meetings, not demanding the hard questions be answered, and by allowing years to pass without a quorum at membership meetings. We did not participate in general membership meetings; we voted for representatives based on popularity and friendship as opposed to competence and commitment. We sequestered ourselves in the classroom while our chief vehicle for change and improvement deteriorated at our feet. Our inertia, however, did not require theft nor does it condone it. Teachers' atonement must be fervent involvement and attentiveness to our affairs!
The demands of the Strong Teachers Grassroots Movement are simple and straightforward.
This position paper hereby informs the WTU executive board that failure to comply with the above demands will constitute initiation of a civil complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force specific actions. This complaint will include but will not be limited to WTU's executive board "jointly and individually."
The brighter day is that the members of the WTU will be able to pass a constitutional amendment granting a specific "WTU Union Members Bill of Rights." This amendment will provide union members with rights more in line with those of Federal employees who belong to unions. The sad fact is that upon review of WTU's constitution, the WTU does not have to tell its membership much of anything, while unions that serve Federal employees must explicitly comply to the standards of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, as amended, as their minimal behavior threshold.
I am proud to be a classroom teacher in Washington, D.C., Public Schools. I am often impressed with the level of professionalism, skills, and compassion I see many of my colleagues exhibit daily with limited resources against the odds. Imagine what we can do if we achieve the proper working conditions, advocacy, and respect in the workplace that we desire and deserve!
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