Divided they stand

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

As a teacher in New York, Rojas' first benefits package was negotiated by Al Shanker, the legendary former American Federation of Teachers president who also ran AFT's powerful New York affiliate (he died in 1997). Evidently, Rojas doesn't fear similarly strong worker power in Dallas (his spokesman didn't return calls from the Dallas Observer). "The administration we have now is accustomed to collective bargaining," Hiscox says. "[Rojas] looks more favorably on a single voice than a lot.

"In defense of him," he adds, "he really cares about the employees."

Such effusive and counterintuitive praise underscores the close alliance between Rojas and Hiscox, who laughs at talk that he and the superintendent are "best buddies." Hiscox doesn't mind such chatter, he says, as long as the ties bring benefits to students and teachers.

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.

To be clear, Rojas hasn't endorsed Alliance-AFT, but his close ties with Hiscox send a strong message to teachers and other employees. Hiscox says his members benefit from his open line of communication to Rojas. Unlike other union bosses, he hasn't criticized the superintendent publicly and won't until he thinks Rojas has really screwed up. "I am a team player," Hiscox says. "I have some faith [Rojas is] going to turn this district around, and I want to be a part of that team."

Chummy relations aren't the whole story of the growth of Alliance, which along with Local 100 is an AFL-CIO member. The union has gone from representing nobody in 1978 -- when Hiscox moved to Dallas to start the union amid widespread distrust of supposedly thuggish AFL-CIO unions -- to 6,000 today out of 18,000 eligible workers, up from 3,000 members in 1990. In the past year, 1,400 new members have signed up, for a net gain of about 900 members, the union reports.

Service, it seems, is key. "We're processing their grievances on a daily basis, and we're out there talking to members," says Hiscox, referring to Alliance's stable of three full-time and several part-time grievance handlers. They work with the district to resolve employee beefs ranging from complaints against unfair supervisors to asbestos in classrooms.

Hiscox has also lent needed support to Rojas for controversial projects. He praises Rojas for hard work in attracting $50 million in grant funding to DISD, as well as $30 million in up-front investment by Edison Schools, the private company that this fall takes over management duties at six Dallas elementary schools.

The union chief, who has tentatively endorsed Edison, disputes claims by Roy Kemble, president of the rival 2,200-member Classroom Teachers of Dallas union (a National Education Association affiliate that admits only teachers and isn't aligned with the AFL-CIO), that instructors are quitting Alliance because of its pro-Edison stance. "I was really frightened," Hiscox says. "I thought I'd lose a lot of members [by endorsing Edison], but I gained a lot. I don't know whether Edison will survive, but that $30 million will go to a good use."

And despite a steady stream of unfavorable press clippings in recent months for Rojas, Hiscox believes morale is gradually improving, albeit slowly, among DISD staff under the new chief. "As long as it's on the way up, I feel we're on the right track," he says.

But Local 100's Willoughby isn't the only dissatisfied person with Alliance-AFT. Cynthia Goode, an organizer for TSTA-ESP, which claims 500 members, charges that short notice and several date changes from DISD administration hurt her group's election effort. "It's a sham," she says. "The district is having this election because of [Alliance's] support of the Edison Schools." Maureen Peters, Alliance's executive vice president, says Goode's statements are "desperate" remarks of a "gadfly organization."

Meanwhile, local attempts to merge teacher and staff unions have been unsuccessful, and Alliance-AFT continues to attract critics inside and outside of the local movement who charge that it's power-hungry.

Peters deflects that broadside by paraphrasing Al Shanker, the late AFT leader. "If you don't have power, what are you?" she asks. "You're powerless, and I'd rather be powerful than powerless." With one strong union, Peters says, "there's no opportunity to divide and conquer."

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