Monday, May 05, 2008

Interesting times at the WTU

After the fiasco that was the Gwendolyn Hemphill era and the subsequent bruhaha that was the election for her replacement things have been quite on the public front for the Washington Teacher's Union. It looks like this era of calm is about to end.
Turmoil in the 4,200-member Washington union is surfacing at a pivotal time: The organization is grappling with the coming displacement of hundreds of teachers through Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's plans to close 23 schools and reorganize 27 others as well as her efforts to weaken long-standing job protections under a contract being negotiated. Meanwhile, membership has been eroding steadily, with fewer teachers needed to accommodate a rapidly shrinking enrollment.

"We're in a state of chaos. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Candi Peterson, a special-education social worker at four schools who serves on the union's board of trustees, adding that she thinks the troubles will put the union at a disadvantage during the contract talks.

"I welcome the support of the AFT," she said. "They will help us emerge as a stronger union."

The union's self-governance was restored in 2005, after the election of George Parker as president and Nathan Saunders as general vice president, both of whom ran on a platform to introduce financial and management reforms aimed at restoring confidence.

But tensions between the two, which have been simmering for months, came to a head last month when Saunders filed suit against Parker. The suit asserts that Parker violated Saunders's free speech rights by introducing a policy forbidding anyone other than Parker from speaking on behalf of the union. Parker also exhibited poor leadership, which led to management and financial problems, Saunders alleges. Parker denies the allegations.

The dispute between Parker and Saunders, who were reelected last year, centers on philosophical differences over the union's approach to dealing with the school administration. Parker supports a "collaborative" approach with Rhee aimed at giving teachers a voice in decisions, while Saunders favors confrontational tactics to protest policies deemed anti-teacher.
It will be interesting to see just how many spanners the WTU can throw into the Mayor/Chancellor's works if Saunders' approach prevails.

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