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Class Notes
Creating a real union of teachers
(Published May 19, 2003)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

The Washington Teachers Union embezzlement scandal has cast a dark shadow on the morale and image of D.C. teachers.

An FBI affidavit filed in December tells a tale of avarice enough to turn the stomachs of every teacher in the District. Ever since Enron, we've gotten used to corporate executives manipulating balance sheets and Wall Street analysts saying opposite things to clients and fellow bankers.

But the racketeering inside the WTU was not to inflate stock prices, conceal debt or deceive the public. No, if the allegations against them are true, the former president, Barbara Bullock, her assistant, Gwendolyn Hemphill, treasurer James Baxter, and several others robbed the union out of pure self-serving greed.

The union's American Express card and hundreds of checks were used to indulge an insatiable appetite for luxury goods, including a mink coat, custom-tailored clothing, fine art, wigs, a 50-inch flat-screen TV and a 288-piece set of silverware. The FBI affidavit claims that more than $2 million in union funds were converted to personal use; an audit by the American Federation of Teachers found over $5 million missing.

The moral repugnance of these acts is especially atrocious when juxtaposed with the self-sacrifice shown by so many dedicated teachers. Almost every teacher I know in the District spends hundreds of dollars every year out of their own pocket to buy supplies for their students. They buy pens, pencils, folders, notebooks, posters, paper, glue, scissors, decorations, art materials and books. I don't know any other business where employees are expected to buy office supplies with their own paycheck. But teachers want the best for their students, and when budgets run dry, teachers are willing to contribute their personal savings.

I am livid with rage at the Washington Teachers Union - its officials and the organization itself - because my colleagues and I have been robbed. The stolen $5 million, divided among the union's 5,000 members, could have given every teacher a thousand dollars for their classroom - enough to cover several years' worth of materials - but instead were squandered on plasma televisions and crystal ice buckets. Reading about how our hard-earned money was stolen and wasted has made teachers understandably furious.

But as criminally guilty as the union's top executives may be (since the case hasn't gone to court, no verdicts have been issued yet), we cannot limit the blame for these misdeeds to just a few individuals. Why did the bank never question Leroy Holmes, Bullock's chauffeur, who cashed over $1.2 million in checks from Hemphill, sometimes crossing off the payee to write his own name, other times stuffing as much as $20,000 in cash into his pocket? Why did the AFT not ask for the mandatory biannual audits that the WTU never filed from 1996-2002? Why did no one on the WTU's 21-member executive board or three-member board of trustees ever take a careful look at the union's budget and transaction statements?

Finally - and this is the hardest question to ask of all - why weren't the members of the 5,000-strong WTU questioning where their money was going? This scandal was caused by personal greed, but it also was caused by a failure of regulation on many levels. Any organization without built-in checks, balances and separation of powers is ripe for corruption. Reluctantly, we are forced to admit that this embezzlement would not have occurred if our membership were more actively involved in the union's proceedings.

If teachers in the District want better conditions in our schools, then we need to more effectively organize ourselves. In particular, unions like our own should only exist when they meet these minimum compliance standards:

Only financial transparency will hold leaders of the union accountable. But I think that the reforms of the union should not stop there.

The WTU suffers a deeper problem from the fact that all teachers automatically must pay a sizable contribution whether or not they are union members. As is common in many other unions, a compulsory sum (in this case, $520) is deducted over the course of the year from every D.C. Public Schools teacher's paychecks to contribute to union operations. Official membership costs an extra $125. So all teachers - union members or not - provide ample financial support to the union. If teachers are dissatisfied with union services and decide to cancel their membership, the union still receives their $520 annual allotment. Thus, there is low incentive for the union to aggressively reduce costs and provide the highest-quality services for teachers.

In an industry where a single employer holds a monopoly over jobs, a union serves a vital role in collective bargaining to prevent exploitation. Factory workers or meat packers employed by the one company in town need to be unionized. But teachers in the Washington metropolitan area have a wealth of opportunities available outside DCPS - public schools in several neighboring counties, and parochial or private schools in the entire region. Competition from these alternate employers naturally forces DCPS to offer attractive salaries and benefits. The need for a traditionally-defined union for teachers in D.C. is not pressing.

Instead, to improve the quality and conditions of teaching, a voluntary association would be more effective than a compulsory union. The Washington Teachers Association could provide all the services that the WTU should have provided, but do it better and with greater accountability. Membership would be strictly voluntary, but payment of modest dues (under $100 annually) would provide members with a wealth of services: weekly or biweekly bulletins of teaching-related news (by e-mail or in print), subsidized professional development classes, reduced rates to national professional conferences, social events for teachers and families, channels for lobbying DCPS for improved school conditions, and reduced-cost optical, dental and legal services.

Teachers know the importance of collaboration and would be willing to voluntarily pay annual dues to obtain access to important services. But unlike the WTU, the WTA would only survive if it kept its dues low, provided valuable services to its members and followed democratic standards of governance. Only by giving members this stronger degree of leverage over their representing organization will we create the pressure needed to build real teacher unity in the District. At the same time we will be able to reserve more of our educational funding for those who need it most: our teachers and students.

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Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator