Divided they stand

A pack of unions struggle for the right to represent DISD workers

On the grass in front of the Dallas Independent School District headquarters last week, a small group of school support staff workers protested before an almost equally large gaggle of reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen.

About 10 workers and their children, members of Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union, attracted the media herd as they picketed shortly before a school board meeting. Demanding higher pay, paid holidays, and more working hours, the group of mostly food-service workers fanned out to wave placards at cars, then massed before the cameras before departing to march, chanting, up and down the sidewalk.

On its surface, the protest was a cry for full-time work. While custodians, who work a standard week, make anywhere from $16,000 to $26,000 annually, kitchen workers take home about $8,000 to $10,800 for 180 days of part-time labor. "We need more raises and more hours," said Garciella Hinojosa, a food-service worker and six-year employee at Obadiah Knight Elementary School near Love Field. "I only work 30 hours a week, and I don't make enough money. But we work hard for those kids."

Davia Cole, 6, participates in a protest by DISD support staff. Her grandmother is a school cafeteria worker.
Mark Graham
Davia Cole, 6, participates in a protest by DISD support staff. Her grandmother is a school cafeteria worker.

Jeraldine Willoughby, chief steward of Local 100, used the occasion to criticize Superintendent Bill Rojas. She drew a comparison between wages of support workers and wages of teachers and administrators, who have come under fire after several high-dollar hires by Rojas. "If he can bring his people in at $175,000 a year, there is more money for support staff," she said.

Then she poked at a recent foible by Rojas, who rung up $4,000 in personal charges, including $126 for alcohol at dinner meetings, on a district credit card. (He was later exonerated by the school board and has fully reimbursed the district.) "Why is it if you've got this credit card, you do whatever you want to do?" Willoughby asked. "What example are you setting for our children?"

Yet all of that wasn't really what the protest was chiefly about.

Rather, it was an attempt by Local 100 to raise its profile and stanch its losses within DISD while a bigger union, with the blessing of a labor-friendly superintendent, strengthens and consolidates its power at other unions' expense.

Willoughby is incensed that the Alliance of Dallas Educators (Alliance-AFT), an American Federation of Teachers affiliate and the city's largest teachers union, is making strong inroads into her union's membership, which she claims adds up to 650 workers (Alliance calls those numbers "grossly exaggerated"). The 6,000-strong Alliance claims it signed up more than 300 additional workers last month. Apparently, many are defectors from Local 100.

"They want to rule the entire district," Willoughby says. "They are stealing our members, and they are not telling our members the truth about what they are doing. But we're sending out a message that we are still here and we are not going anyplace."

Alliance's primacy was expected to be reaffirmed in a Tuesday election (results were not ready by press time), in which, under a policy instituted by former Superintendent Yvonne Gonzalez, support workers were predicted to choose an Alliance candidate to represent all support staff unions in district salary negotiations. Other choices included Local 100, the local chapter of the Texas State Teachers Association-Education Support Personnel (TSTA-ESP) union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the Dallas Association of Texas Professional Educators (a 1,200-member "right-to-work" group that fights the "negative impact" of unionism on schools).

So while every student learns that Karl Marx sounded the call for workers of the world to unite, Willoughby insists that DISD support staff, whose ranks include office, custodial, maintenance, and food-service employees, shouldn't join teacher groups.

She points out that while support staff received two concurrent pay raises last fall, or a 7.7 percent jump amounting to an extra $300 to $500 a year, their raises lagged behind those of teachers, who recently bagged a $3,000 raise from the Legislature along with yearly district salary increases. "When you have a union that represents everybody, someone is going to get left out," she says. "The Alliance wants full control, and I don't think it's fair."

But Harley Hiscox, Alliance's founder and longtime president and a former English teacher, points out that 2,000 out of about 6,500 eligible support workers district-wide have already given him a vote of confidence by joining Alliance. "We've got the highest dues of anybody, but the appeal is the service we offer," he says.

And he happily agrees that Alliance wants "full control" to become DISD's only union by merging with other unions or luring away their members. "I'm not a religious man, but I pray for it every day," he says. "We would accomplish so much more if it wasn't for the constant bickering, name-calling, and competition between unions."

Indeed, the Tuesday election shines a light on a little-noticed development under the Rojas administration. Remarkably, the new chief actually supports organized labor. His willingness to work with employee groups is rare for Texas, a state where many school districts host a bevy of employee groups competing for standing and membership.

Indeed, Rojas is not from Texas. He has toiled in the labor strongholds of New York and San Francisco, where large unions that win bargaining rights for most professional employees -- but not support staff -- cast a long shadow in schoolhouse affairs and constitute formidable political forces. (Support staff joining teacher unions, however, is something of a Texas phenomenon.)

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