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Springer tries to fix a mess, regain rank-and-file's trust
(Published October 20, 2003)

Staff Writer

George Springer knew that he was walking into a mess.

Members of the Washington Teachersí Union had been complaining for years about the unresponsiveness of their local leadership. About paying dues that did not seem to result in improvements in pay, training or working conditions. About being the scapegoats in a system often criticized for its failures, seldom praised for its successes.

And then they watched on television as the FBI carted off television sets, fur coats, diamonds and designer clothes, all purchased illegally with their hard-earned money by the officers they had elected to represent them.

"In my 44 years in the teacher union movement, Iíve never seen anything like the situation that occurred here in Washington," Springer said on the day he took over the WTU local. What happened, he said, was "simply appalling."

Springerís job is to save the WTU ó to rebuild the union and its reputation. He was appointed last January by the American Federation of Teachers executive council to run the WTU after an internal audit uncovered "gross irregularities" in the unionís finances.

The former African-American history and graphic arts teacher said he knows that his biggest challenge is restoring the trust of the rank-and-file. And since he is the first administrator ever appointed to take over a local union, his strategy is flexible.

"Iím making it up as I go," he said with a smile when asked about his specific plans for rebuilding the union.

Although he was appointed for a term of 18 months, Springer does not see that as a firm deadline.

"The goal is to create a union that is fully functional, that members trust, so that all people who deal with it will have confidence in whatís to be done Ė whether that takes 12 months or 18 months or 36 months," he said.

Springer has the power to go back to the executive council and ask for a continuance of his appointment, which he will do, he said, "if the union is not fully capable of managing its own affairs," based on his personal assessment of the situation. Under the AFT constitution, he must send a written report to the executive council every three months.

Asked about the AFTís failure to act earlier, Springer said that the problems were caused, in part, because the AFT tries to respect the autonomy of its member unions. He acknowledged that the problems in the District "shook things up" at national headquarters and forced the whole union to look at ways it needed to change its relationship with its local affiliates.

In Springerís view, the scandal also exposed problems with the WTU institutional structure.

"One of the most important elements of revamping the union is revamping the constitution," Springer said. "No changes have been made in four decades."

He sees as vital a change in the rule regarding quorums. Under current rules, any 100 general members present at a meeting constitutes a quorum.

"You canít say that any 500 people in the country can get together and act like Congress. I think meetings would function more effectively if a quorum required attendance of a more representative nature," he said. "We will also need to put in safeguards to protect the union financially ó more checks and balances."

Springer said he would like to see a new constitution in place by next July, so elections for new local leadership could be held soon afterwards. But, he noted, "Committee work is a slow process. We have to get together a group to look at the current constitution, recommend changes and have the members ratify it. The process will take some time."

Springer sees the breadth of his own experience as helpful in trying to rebuild the WTU. He has been involved in the teachersí union "at every level," from the school in New Britain, Conn., where he began his career, up through the ranks of the area local to head the Connecticut Federation of Education and Professional Employees, where he served as president for 22 years. Immediately prior to taking the post at the WTU, Springer was the AFTís Northeast regional director, in charge of local union affiliates from Maine to Maryland (plus Puerto Rico). He also served as an AFT national vice president from 1988 to 2001.

In announcing his appointment, AFT President Sandra Feldman called Springer "a respected, seasoned, and highly capable educator and union leader." He is in his early 60s and, according to WTU spokesman Terrence Cooper, was approaching retirement before he decided to take on this challenge.

The WTU has 5,000 members at 146 D.C. public schools. Springer said he has "concentrated on rebuilding representation from the ground up." He brought in 12 ATF officials to supervise the election of new "building reps," the union representative elected at each school. He also hired five "field representatives" to assist in training of the new building reps and to troubleshoot generally as the national leadership tries to reach out to those teachers who are still mistrustful of the AFT.

His team has also focused on improved communications. The WTU newsletter has resurfaced, after a four-year hiatus the previous leadership blamed on "insufficient funds." The WTU teacher "telephone hotline," which members can consult for timely information, is now working, and Springer has hired a communications director.

"We want to make sure that we get out accurate information that wonít come back to bite us," Springer said.

Springer expressed optimism that his strategy is working.

"In the time Iíve been here, weíve seen substantial progress," he said. "The membership is better informed. The members are more trusting that the union can work with them and is concerned."

WTU members gathered behind his efforts to fight the D.C. Board of Educationís denial of their scheduled pay raise, and talk of replacing the WTU with representation by the National Education Association has died down.

However, he acknowledges there is still a tough road ahead.

"For one thing, we have a mayor that is running 100 miles an hour to distance himself from D.C. public schools," Springer said. "Since Iíve been here the mayor has made things more difficult, not less."

And in Springerís view, there is no way for his union to stay completely above the political fray.

"A union cannot function in D.C. and not be involved in politics ó the politics of the school board, the city council, the Congress.

"But we are hoping the political machine will reject the ways of the past. We canít be a union of patronage. We are looking forward, not backwards."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator