Labor Pains: Because Being in a Union can be Painful

A Teachers Union Focusing on Education?

This week’s Washington City Paper ran a fascinating cover story on the Washington Teachers Union and WTU president George Parker’s apparent willingness to talk about real education reform. As City Paper senior editor Mike DeBonis writes:

“I think unions in general have to step up to the plate and give educating children a high priority,” Parker says. “I think we have a full responsibility to ensure that our children are getting a quality education.”“Educating children a high priority”? Who are you, and what have you done with the Washington Teachers’ Union?

This attitude is a far cry from that of Barbara Bullock, the previous WTU president, under whom “the union won pay raise after pay raise, all while swatting away all but the most meaningless contract reforms.” With a track record like that, she might be president still — if she hadn’t been caught leading a $5 million embezzlement ring.

While Parker may actually be willing to work with D.C.’s new Chancellor, education reformer Michelle Rhee, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to get his membership on board. One eye-opening example:

But in the WTU, there’s most certainly an old-line thread more attuned to the Barbara Bullock sensibility. For one, there’s Jerome Brocks, a 32-year DCPS veteran who chaired the union’s political action committee before Parker took charge.“I’m not impressed with Mr. Parker, bottom line,” Brocks says. “Parker should not be in bed with these people. He should not be friendly with these people. They should get nauseated when they hear his name because he should be fighting on behalf of the teachers.”

Beyond his distaste for Parker’s good-vibes style, Brocks is serious when he says he misses Bullock’s reign. “Barbara was a strong leader, and if the shoe was on the other foot, Barbara wouldn’t have stood for some of the crap that’s going down now. I’m sorry that Barbara did it; I have a lot of anger towards her for allowing Parker to become our president, because if she would have kept the leadership that she had, she would probably still be president of the union….Now, in my opinion, we have a weakling as president of my union. We don’t have nobody in there with backbone, somebody that’s gonna stand up to these people.”

In this union leader’s eyes, at least, “backbone” equates with “swatting away all but the most meaningless contract reforms” — plus multi-million-dollar embezzlement. The whole story sounds almost identical to the Miami teachers union scandal, where Pat Tornillo, another union president with “backbone,” fought tooth and nail for his members’ perceived interests while skimming more than $3.5 million from the dues treasury.

So: Will WTU president Parker’s actions match his reformist rhetoric? Will the membership tolerate reform from their president and the Chancellor? The current WTU contract expires in October, so we’re going to find out soon.