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May 31, 2005

1)  AFT Embarks on Civil War in Puerto Rico. The American Federation of Teachers plans to establish an administratorship over its affiliate in Puerto Rico, but the union president says he will fight the effort with every means at his disposal.

The island has been a hotbed of union conflict for both the NEA and the AFT for many years (see the July 15, 2004 EIA Communiqué for a summary). The two unions battled for exclusive representation against the backdrop of national merger talks in 1998, the AFT affiliate (the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, or FMPR) won the representation election, the NEA affiliate left NEA and became independent, and FMPR's medical plan went bankrupt. In May 2003, Rafael Feliciano Hernandez ran for president of FMPR on a platform of reform and disaffiliation from AFT. He won, but the divorce from AFT did not occur as planned.

Last year, Feliciano claimed AFT officials contacted FMPR's former leaders in an effort to keep the union affiliated. Accusations flew back and forth, with some FMPR officials charging Feliciano with corruption and unconstitutional actions, and Feliciano claiming AFT was trying to undermine his authority.

Matters came to a head on September 29, 2004. Details of what occurred that day are in deep dispute, but both sides acknowledge that a vote on disaffiliation was held, and that the result was overwhelmingly in favor of disaffiliation.

AFT did not recognize the disaffiliation, and while FMPR stopped paying dues to AFT, it continued to make payments on a $1.9 million remnant of a loan from the 1999 representation election campaign. Relations between the two unions remained in a hazy limbo until January 2005, when hundreds of FMPR reps opposed to disaffiliation petitioned AFT to investigate the vote and the tenure of Feliciano.

In March, AFT sent national vice presidents John Cole of Texas and Maria Portalatín of New York (chosen for their fluency in Spanish) to the island to conduct interviews. The investigation was not ideal, since opponents of the disaffiliation were eager to testify, but Feliciano and his supporters no longer recognized the authority of the AFT, and so did not cooperate.

After a three-day probe, Cole and Portalatín concluded that the FMPR leadership had committed multiple violations of both the AFT and FMPR constitutions. They advised AFT to "follow the procedures for the creation of an administration committee," saying it was "the only remedy that will restore the rights" of FMPR members. The AFT Executive Council approved the recommendation and will send Cole, Portalatín and John Doherty of Chicago back to Puerto Rico to begin proceedings for the establishment of an administratorship over the union.

The AFT team reported that the disaffiliation vote was not placed on the agenda of delegate assembly 30 days prior, as required by the FMPR constitution, that there may have been ineligible delegates who voted, and that the conduct of debate was slanted in favor of those who wanted to disaffiliate. Additionally, the AFT team stated that disaffiliation required an amendment to the FMPR constitution, and that the process for constitutional amendments was not followed. Finally, the team accused Feliciano of administering the union budget without the proper oversight by FMPR's representative bodies.

In response, Feliciano issued a statement repudiating AFT's plans and announcing that FMPR did not recognize AFT's authority. Feliciano called AFT's action a "declaration of war" against FMPR and all the unions, political and social organizations that support it. Over the weekend, supporters and opponents of Feliciano held dueling press conferences to alternately praise and denounce him.

Though the dispute may seem like small potatoes in a faraway place, the FMPR has as many members as AFT's affiliate in Chicago, and there is a huge amount of money at stake. If Feliciano is corrupt and is seizing undemocratic control of an AFT affiliate, then AFT has the right and responsibility to act. But this is a different scenario than what happened in Washington, DC and Miami, where AFT let long-time union presidents bleed their locals dry before stepping in.

Feliciano and his slate announced their intentions to disaffiliate from AFT while they were candidates in 2003, and they were elected. That a disaffiliation should then take place hardly seems to fly in the face of the will of the members. Second, does AFT really have the authority to intervene? What's to stop the union from reversing any disaffiliation vote in the same manner? The election losers call you in, you hear testimony from them, you rule the vote was improper and you establish national control over the affiliate. Whether Feliciano is a crook or a saint, he'd be insane to trust AFT to impartially judge the situation. AFT has a huge financial stake in the outcome.

Whatever AFT or FMPR does in the next month, this whole mess is going to end up in a courtroom, where it belongs.

P.S. Search if you will for any mention of this anywhere on the AFT web site, or in any of its many publications, statements or releases.

2)  AFL-CIO Rebels Courted NEA? I mention this story not because I believe it was serious, but because some high-ranking union officials were misinformed enough to think it was possible, and a Washington Post reporter was not "NEA savvy" enough to exclude it from his story.

The May 27 Washington Post has a story headlined "AFL-CIO President Is Poised for Fifth Term," which notes that John J. Sweeney has secured enough delegate votes for his reelection this summer. The 11th and 12th paragraphs of the story read, "The Wilhelm-Stern insurgent faction had been exploring maneuvers to try to expand their numbers. One idea under consideration has been to persuade the Carpenters Union to rejoin the federation, and then get the National Education Association to affiliate with the AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO officials said yesterday that even if such tactics succeed, they would not change the vote because the deadline to qualify to cast ballots at the July convention was in March, making it too late for the carpenters and teachers to vote, even if they join."

Both the AFL-CIO officials and the Post reporter were either unaware, or chose to discount, the extremely high level of animosity towards the AFL-CIO by many large NEA state affiliates, and a comparable amount of ambivalence by the rest. The rhetoric has died down considerably since the defeat of the NEA-AFT merger in 1998, but even today, an attempt to join NEA to the AFL-CIO would serve no purpose but to tear apart the NEA.

I feel confident in calling this idea a non-starter, something the rebels and the Post could have learned with a phone call or two.

3)  Teachers' Union Must Abide by Godwin's Law. The Ceres Unified Teachers Association (CUTA) in California does not like Superintendent Walt Hanline very much. The union accuses him of intimidating teachers, of failing to work cooperatively with employees, and of being an all-around bad egg. CUTA members gave Hanline a vote of no confidence earlier this month.

The union latest newsletter published a cartoon with a list of complaints about Hanline's management style with the caption "Mr. H. says, 'Every coach should have the opportunity to have players committed to his visions'" next to drawings of Hanline and Adolph Hitler. Below the drawings, there is a man in a Nazi helmet with a thought balloon that reads, "I hope the masses don't fall for that again." (Wow. Swift lives.)

District officials and members of the public, including many union members, were upset about the cartoon. They should be more upset with the response of the union officers who authorized the cartoon:

* "We were not saying Hanline was Hitler. We were saying that the policies were Hitler-like, where they take away rights and freedoms." – Biff Galbraith, CUTA president.

* "It may be pushing the envelope, but we were at a point where we felt we were being pushed." – Galbraith again.

* "The cartoon was political satire, of course. All political satire has a message, and this time the message had to do with Dr. Hanline's management style." – Doug Watchous, CUTA negotiating committee chairman.

* "The characterization is not that he is Hitler but some of the tactics or philosophies that they have as far as management style are similar." – Watchous again.

* "They thought the cartoon was okay." – Watchous, claiming the nine-member CUTA executive board approved the cartoon.

Fortunately, some teachers thought differently. "Incredibly, they (the union leadership) continue to display the same dreadful judgment they used in approving the cartoon in the first place," wrote teacher Laurie Frazier.

You can look up Godwin's Law on Wikipedia, but the practical application of it is that if you use Hitler or Nazis in an argument, the argument immediately ends and you lose. CUTA officers should accept their defeat with the good grace they have thus far failed to display, and get back to whatever harmless nonsense that usually occupies their vast amounts of spare time.

4)  Baffled by Books. Last week we saw some truly remarkable stories about books and reading. Remarkable because the people involved seem to think of books as some strange sort of device whose mechanics are a complete mystery.

Let’s start with "Matching boys with books" in the May 24 Christian Science Monitor. "Not only do boys consistently test lower than girls on reading, but they are well known to be reluctant readers," reports the Monitor. The lengthy story concludes that boys will read more often if – ready? – they are given books they might enjoy!

"Girl readers are generally drawn to narratives that focus on relationships between people, while boys tend to prefer adventure, science fiction, war stories, history, and, of course, sports," the story says. "Research also suggests that, given the choice, boys will often prefer non-fiction, magazines and newspapers, how-to reading, and biographies – reading material that some teachers say is not serious enough for class assignments."

Judging by this next story, some teachers may be right about newspapers not being serious enough. The May 24 Washington Post ran a story headlined "Odds Stacked Against Pleasure Reading." The story concluded that today's students don't read for pleasure and the culprits are "high-stakes standardized testing," "scripted lesson plans," and "so much homework that it's really hard to find time for pleasure reading."

How about the 25 hours per week watching television or the 21 hours per week on the computer? Not mentioned in the story. How about the notion that it's hard to do something for pleasure if you're no good at it? Nope, not there either. No, the problem, according to a University of Kansas professor cited in the article, is that the "curriculum often demands that these students read classics, even if students have no 'clue about the theme, the syntax, the vocabulary and for the most part they really don't care because the literature does not connect to them.'"

So if Johnny doesn't "connect" with the classics, it's not his fault. It's the fault of those idiot politicians, curriculum specialists, educators and parents who insist on using Sophocles, Shakespeare and Shelley instead of literature that allows students "to bring their experiences and thoughts into the analysis of meaning."

Let me repeat something I wrote on a similar topic a couple of years ago: "Maybe, just maybe, there are elements in Greek mythology or The Iliad that can't be reduced to the daily experiences of American teenagers. That's why they need to learn."

Finally, some of you may have been led to believe that the worst thing about living in California is being governed by a former bodybuilder from Austria. But that's only because you are unacquainted with some of our state legislators.

The state assembly passed a bill that would prohibit the state or school districts from adopting instructional materials that exceed 200 pages in length. I'm not making this up.

This is stupid on so many levels it's pointless to list them all. Let me stick with the sheer gall of lawmakers insisting on textbook brevity: The table of contents of the California Education Code is 13,824 words long, or 65 pages when pasted into Microsoft Word.

5)  Recommended Reading. * You would think the size of public education alone would breed a lot more stories like these, but the summer issue of Education Next blazes a trail with reports by Ron Haskins and Mark Zanger on the "school lunch lobby." You can bury yourself in investigative stories about defense contractors, overcharges and influence-peddling, but the education-industrial complex is hardly noticed. Haskins gives the school lunch program a thorough once-over at the macro level, while Zanger, a restaurant critic, goes into the schools to examine the type and quality of food our kids get for the money. More of this type of reporting is desperately needed.

* You have to register to read the content on the Los Angeles Times web site, but it's worth the hassle just to read this piece by Marlene Zuk, a biology professor at the University of California Riverside. A short tease: "In the face of all evidence to the contrary, my students exhibit an unswerving confidence in their own abilities."

6)  Story Updates. * Last week, EIA ran an item on NEA state affiliates studying new language that would prevent dues decreases because of the average teacher salary formula. The Pennsylvania State Education Association House of Delegates approved such a proposal two weeks ago. Also, the delegates approved a special assessment to last for the next five years. Teachers will contribute an additional $10 annually ($5 for support employees) to help bail out the union's staff pension plan.

* Speaking of staff pension plans, EIA ran an item last week about the New Jersey Education Association and staff retirement provisions. It included details about the California Teachers Association's 401(k) plan. But, unlike CTA, NJEA does not contribute matching funds to any staffer's 401(k).

7)  Quote of the Week #1. "There are better ways for me to spend my hours than to deal with an employee who files constant grievances and objects to basic rules." – American Federation of Teachers Local 212 Executive Vice President Charlie Dee, on a lawsuit filed against his union by employee Mary Tews. Local 212 fired Tews in 2003, was ordered by an arbitrator to rehire her with back pay, then, Tews alleges, cut her pay and hours and tried to force her out. (May 25 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

Quote of the Week #2. "Is our symbolic stand against assigning differential economic value to teachers forcing us to provide an education of lower value to our poorest students? We think so. In effect, by paying these teachers equally, we are choosing to 'devalue' our traditionally underserved students in poor and minority areas." – Gary W. Ritter and Christopher J. Lucas, education professors at the University of Arkansas. (May 18 Education Week)


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