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Who, exactly, is in charge of Washington Teachers’ Union?
Current president George Parker’s term ended Thursday—at least as far as the union’s constitution is concerned. On July 1, new officers were supposed to take office. But the elections that would have determined who started a new three-year term then were never held—and now WTU’s leadership is locked in a court fight over what happens next. Vice president Nathan Saunders and the chairwoman of WTU’s election committee, Claudette Carson, have sued Parker for thwarting the election process and illegally cutting off Saunders’ salary.
Oh, and as it happens, Saunders is also Parker’s chief opponent to take over the union.
The dispute over when, and how, to hold this year’s elections goes back four months. Unlike the usual hubbub of union politicking, this election bears heavily on the implementation of the newly adopted teachers contract—which will raise salaries an average $20,000 and create a merit pay system. The constitution stipulates elections for senior officials are supposed to be conducted every three years on May 30. The union’s election committee, elected in the spring of each year and composed of 15 nominated union members, runs the whole thing. Usually, candidates for officer positions must submit a nominating petition with 20 signatures to the election committee by April 30.
But Parker failed to turn in his nominating petition by the deadline, claiming the election committee originally in place wasn’t legally constituted because it did not meet its 15-member quota; thus, he didn’t have to submit a petition (see City Paper’s previous article). Parker argued that the other 86 candidates who submitted their petitions on the deadline were “trying to run a scam on [the] election” by using invalid petitions.
“This is a throwback to the unions in the 30s and 40s,” Saunders told City Desk. “Parker is saying, ‘I didn’t bring my basketball to the court, so I’m taking everybody else’s basketball.’”
But Parker says otherwise: “What we have is Nathan Saunders playing an old-school election with invalid petitions.”
After the American Federation of Teachers—WTU’s parent organization—was called in to oversee the election of the 15 members of the election committee, it seemed Parker had nothing more to gripe about. The AFT decided to designate all future election decisions to the newly elected and legally constituted election committee, and would play no further role in the process. Parker, though, didn’t like the new election committee. So he kept withholding his nominating petition and refused to hand over the documents necessary to hold an election.
The complaint filed by Saunders and Carson (as you might expect) paints Parker as willfully obstructionist. During a meeting with Saunders, vice presidential candidate and blogger Candi Peterson, and AFT president Randi Weingarten, the complaint says, Parker told Weingarten, “I didn’t file my petition.” Weingarten responded, “George, you didn’t file your petition? I am stunned! I thought I had three candidates here representing three different slates, and I only have two.”
“Parker has run 100 times, so he certainly knew what to do,” Peterson told City Desk. “But for whatever reason he didn’t release the documents.”
Among his opponents, frustration with Parker’s conduct grew. When Carson, chairwoman of the Election Committee, requested that Parker deliver nominating petitions, union dues reports and the union’s only membership list in order to begin elections, Parker refused again. According to the complaint, Parker ignored Carson’s requests four times. Because the new election committee is composed of Saunders supporters, Parker’s solution was to transfer duties normally left with the election committee to the Parker-friendly executive board. With the unanimous support of the executive board, Parker decided all further elections would be postponed until fall, and that it was now the executive board’s duty to set election deadlines and provide the necessary documents.
To Saunders, that’s not fair. “The executive board never plays a role in the elections because they are candidates,” he says. “The election committee and executive board are not to be intertwined.”
Parker’s team is now making it personal, taking aim at Saunders, his main opponent. The board recently voted to revoke Saunders’s salary and refuse him a leave of absence. Since Saunders isn’t a teacher in DCPS, his salary is tied to the WTU payroll. The goal, Saunders and his allies think, is to force him to drop out of the running.
But beyond the personal disputes between Saunders and Parker, the indefinite suspension of the voting process has left many of the 4,000 teachers represented by the WTU feeling disenfranchised.
In an email sent to Parker by WTU member and Roosevelt High School teacher Thomas O’Rourke, the anger reaches a boiling point: “Your cynical manipulation and trampling of union democracy and worker tradition is both sad and disgusting and is directly responsible for the continuing decline of this union,” writes O’Rourke. “Know that, given the great amount of power under this Constitution you have, you will likely ignore this email and go on about your way, but know this: I, and others will make it our business to let the entire membership know of your nefarious conduct, your lack of accountability or even shame, and your cynical lies.”
It remains to be seen how the lawsuit transpires, but no one is too pleased about it.
“It’s unfortunate that we have to take these steps to go to court,” said Peterson.
As far as Parker is concerned, though, he’s still running the show. At a D.C. Council hearing two weeks ago, he told Councilman Harry Thomas Jr. that his term didn’t end until his successor took office.
“The term of office for all officers is three years,” Parker said. “Ok, so what?” said Thomas.
“Or until there – wait a minute.”
“Or until their successors are elected,” concluded Parker. When that will be is now up to the court.