Dues and Don?ts: Parker says Saunders is more interested in running for office than serving the union.
Dues and Don?ts: Parker says Saunders is more interested in running for office than serving the union. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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News flash: It’s campaign season, and there’s a big-time election coming. The fate of our city is at stake—it’s a race that stands to impact big-time issues: education reform, relations with the city workforce, ongoing financial pressures.

No, LL does not speak of the mayoral race. What’s he’s talking about here is the presidency of the Washington Teachers’ Union.

An internecine battle that’s been brewing for the better part of three years is threatening to explode this spring, as WTU President George Parker runs for a third term as chief of the high-profile union. His only declared opposition thus far is Nathan Saunders, who has spent both of Parker’s terms as general vice president, a post that, in recent years, Saunders has used to assail Parkers’ leadership at near every turn.

If you thought relations between the mayor and D.C. Council are bad, they’ve got nothing on the rancor within the WTU executive ranks. As Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has embarked on her mission to overhaul the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) in no small part by improving the quality of teaching, Saunders has repeatedly sought to undercut Parker. At one point, Saunders filed a federal lawsuit against Parker, accusing him of conspiring to oust Saunders from union affairs and covering up financial mismanagement to boot. A judge tossed Saunders’ lawsuit out of court, but that has hardly put a muzzle on the man.

“I’m of the ilk that a union represents its members’ interest, not as a communications funnel for management’s interest,” he says by way of slamming Parker.

“Nathan’s pretty much been running for office for the last three years,” Parker retorts, with good reason. While Saunders has been tossing verbal bombs in Parker’s direction since 2007, he’s been engaged in the tough slog of negotiating a teacher contract with DCPS—a process deeply intertwined with the union campaigns.

Teachers have been working without a contract since October 2007, and since Rhee made it plain early on that she planned to make big-time changes in contractual terms a cornerstone of her tenure, negotiations repeatedly broke down to the point that a third-party mediator—former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke—was brought in last year to seal a deal. In recent weeks, both Parker and Rhee have said that they are very close to reaching an agreement—statements that have Saunders and others wondering: What are they waiting for?

That might well be the union election. For one thing, Rhee is certainly feeling pressure to get a deal done ahead of the union election. With Saunders, well known as an anti-Rhee partisan, waiting in the wings, DCPS gains little by having him replace Parker. And without a doubt, a negotiated contract presented to teachers for ratification would be Parker’s best campaign tool.

Elizabeth Davis, a longtime WTU activist who ran unsuccessfully against Parker and Saunders back in 2004, says that without a contract in place, “It gives the impression to members that you have a chief negotiator who can’t negotiate a good deal for teachers.”

In 2008, Parker badly misread his constituency when word of a two-tier “red and green” teacher-compensation system leaked. Teachers who were willing to give up their job security—the work rules typically referred to as “tenure”—could see their pay rise by 50 percent or more, an amount unheard of in the teaching realm. But if Parker thought that teachers would jump at the chance for a massive raise, he was wrong.

In an unforgettable moment, Parker polled thousands of teachers assembled at the Washington Convention Center for an August 2008 “Welcome Back” event. With Rhee behind him on the dais, he asked teachers to raise their hands if they liked the red-and-green proposal; the teachers, with boos and hisses, made it clear that they weren’t down with the tiers, all but killing the proposal.

But if Parker can now deliver a contract that delivers a decent pay increase while preserving the tenets of the tenure system, that would be a record to run on.

Aside from a potential contract, Parker’s got some other accomplishments he’s happy to rattle off—things like tuition reimbursements for teachers, guaranteed planning periods, clean union books. But Saunders has one big advantage: He’s got all the time in the world to campaign; his rift with Parker has meant he’s essentially a freelancer within the union leadership.

But question is, will the race be a clear-cut choice between Parker and Saunders? Davis, for one, hopes not. She’s looking for someone along the lines of Randi Weingarten, the former head of the New York City teachers union, who last year took the reins of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), parent of both the New York and D.C. unions. Faced with a national political climate hostile to teachers unions, she’s since set about reforming the AFT’s image, opening up to certain proposals—merit pay among them—that were once anathema to union leaders.

Rather than engage in the old-line labor-management debates, Davis says, local union leaders need “to frame issues around children.” “Randi has somehow managed to pull it off with the AFT,” Davis says. “I don’t understand why that can’t happen locally.”

Perhaps it can. Parker eagerly takes up the Weingarten mantle, impressing upon LL the need for the WTU to “get in front of” reform efforts. And he isn’t shy about drawing lines in the sand: “This is about change in unionism versus old-school unionism,” Parker says. “We’ve got to convince parents and everyone else that we care about the children, we don’t just care about salaries and benefits….We haven’t gotten that credibility yet.”

That process might be eased by the WTU’s changing makeup. “George has a different group of teachers voting—new in the city, new in the system. They’re not people who attend the union meetings,” Davis says.

Saunders says he’s in the process of putting together a slate. He says he’s looking for “teachers that embody a certain amount of values…equality, freedom, fairness, integrity, responsibility, and security.” Rumors have it that Saunders has tapped Candi Peterson, a firebrand social worker who runs a blog, the Washington Teacher, that is a reliable source of anti-Rhee invective and rabble-rousing. Saunders declines to knock down the rumors: “I want Candi Peterson in a significant role. We haven’t come to terms on that.” Parker, for his part, looks forward to having a VP he can actually work with.

The mechanics of a union election don’t much resemble those of a council or mayoral race. The politicking is done mostly via mailers and signs posted in teacher lounges. Candidates can make the rounds to the 140-plus DCPS facilities, but pressing flesh with time-strapped teachers can be a tall order. Come election time, ballots are mailed to WTU members, who cast their votes and mail them back to an independent auditor that tallies the votes. The winner needs to collect more than 50 percent of the vote to win; additional candidates raise the prospect that the process could drag into summer and beyond.

Saunders says he hopes to have a victory wrapped up as early as possible—hopefully before too late in the summer, because he has other ambitions.

“I want the WTU to play a significant role in the mayoral election,” he says. “By prolonging this into September, we aren’t a factor in the Fenty election, and if we aren’t a factor, then we’re guaranteed Rhee again.”

On this, Parker actually agrees: “I think we have to be involved. Having a mayor that’s supportive of education and supportive of teachers is important.”

Vince and Marion

In early December, LL penned a column about D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray’s political standing, shortly after accusations of financial misdealings hit the papers.

Therein, LL pointed to the then-ongoing probe into council contracting and earmarking practices being conducted by superlawyer Robert S. Bennett as “another looming matter that could shake the chairman’s standing in the public eye.”

Well, the Bennett report is out, and thus far, the chairman’s standing is solid. The investigation conducted by Bennett and his Big Law colleagues proved to be thoroughgoing, its conclusions incisive and its recommendations well-reasoned.

And Gray deserves kudos for how the release of the report was handled. Neither the chairman nor any of his 12 colleagues were privy to Bennett’s findings prior to Tuesday morning, when Bennett sat before the council dais with co-investigator Amy Sabrin and proceeded to publicly detail Marion Barry’s multitude of misdoings. In the process, Bennett did nothing to soft-pedal his most damning finding: that Barry had handed a contract to girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, then demanded part of the proceeds in return—what amounts to a kickbank. Bennett’s report was also forthright about Barry’s attempts to derail the investigation—by refusing to answer key questions and attempting to keep Watts-Brighthaupt from handing over critical evidence.

The whole thing made for great theater, with Bennett detailing his findings as Barry sat before him on the dais, leaning back in his chair. Afterward, Barry flailed in protest, lashing out at whistleblower Sharon Wise and asking Bennett how he could be faulted on handing a contract to Watts-Brighthaupt when no “written procedures” had been in place governing such behavior. Quite simple, Bennett replied: “I wouldn’t expect the city council to have written rules—with all due respect, sir—that you should not give [contracts] to people you have a relationship with.”

“We couldn’t have been more fair to Mr. Barry,” Bennett added. “We plain and simple found that he did some things wrong.”

Gray hasn’t proven his stewardship of the city legislature just yet. That’s going to depend on how he leads his institution’s response to Barry. For one thing, the council will vote in the coming weeks to refer the Bennett findings to the new U.S. attorney, Ron Machen. And there will almost certainly be an attempt to censure Barry—an unprecendented council maneuver. Gray needs to make sure there are 12 votes for both those measures.

Beyond that, there is nothing in the council rules to allow the body to eject one of its members; the only way to oust Barry would be through an unlikely recall from the voters of Ward 8. (No public official here has even been recalled.) But Gray has other tools at his disposal. He could strip Barry of his committee chairmanship, for one. And he could call on Barry to resign for the good of the council.

If Gray follows through, his mayoral hopes might still twinkle.

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