Divided they stand
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."
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.)
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.
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."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.