Teachers Union's Presidency Up for Grabs

Feb. 22 update:  In a low turnout election that attracted few Los Angeles teachers, current United Teachers Los Angeles president A.J. Duffy was returned to office for a second term.

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Becki Robinson

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Linda Guthrie

Duffy did not run on a reform platform in his bid to oversee a union that has cemented its reputation for opposing school reform. However, commenting on his 58.7 percent victory, Duffy told the media he would "continue down the road of reform."

AT ONE HOUR AND FOUR MINUTES into the third and final debate among 15 candidates seeking to lead United Teachers Los Angeles — the nation's second-largest teachers union and a de facto obstacle to reform in L.A.'s public schools — the questions started getting really deep.

"Why was it necessary for the UTLA president to have a marked parking space?" asked the moderator, reading a question aimed at union president A.J. Duffy and submitted anonymously by one of only 16 audience members. Of 45,000 teachers in L.A. — a veritable city of educators — just these few sat in foldout chairs in the auditorium of Carson's White Middle School last Tuesday.

Attention turned to Duffy — the round-at-the-middle, pintsize, 60-something union president whose profuse sweating, two-tone wingtip shoes and meticulously folded handkerchief give the impression that he just stepped off the floor of a big-band dance-a-thon.

"The few times that I have parked upstairs, my car has been keyed," he complained with Brooklyn bravado. "Because as everyone in this building knows" — this is when the audience starts tittering, but Duffy seemingly doesn't pick up on it — "if something goes wrong with UTLA, it's the president's fault. And we do have a couple of members who wish to retaliate against the president — and they have. That's why [my car is] parked downstairs, so security can see it."

DESPITE ITS NAME, DUFFY'S UNION is far from united, and his allusion to something going "wrong" couldn't be more on target. Beyond disgruntled teachers keying his car and, he also implied, teachers stealing papers from his secretary's desk, he's also presiding over a bitter, personal, internal feud over the union's future that's playing out in anonymous e-mails, a caustic YouTube video that attacks candidate Linda Guthrie with unproven claims, angry debates and, ultimately, a ballot-by-mail election.

There are 17 official candidates running for seven union jobs in the election under way at the time of this writing. The deadline for voting was February 21. Most are in one of two factions — Duffy and his handpicked crowd of mostly union insiders, versus Linda Guthrie and her own slate of longtime union operators, pushed from power since Duffy became president in 2005, scoring a surprise victory over unpopular president John Perez.

Duffy's key challengers for president — Becki Robinson and Guthrie — are both longtime union higher-ups. Robinson, 60, is a former union vice president but she is running alone and hasn't raised funds. Guthrie — by virtue of her fund-raising and creation of a slate of allies who are also running for openings - is his most serious competition.

Since 2005, Guthrie has been the union's vice president for secondary schools, but Duffy, she says, has marginalized her to the point of irrelevance. For Guthrie — a tall, afro-sporting, professorial 56-year-old — this election could turn the tables.

Trying to prevent the kind of upset that brought him to power, Duffy is promoting his record selectively. He tells teachers to look first at their pocketbooks: They have gotten an 8.5 percent hike in pay, plus three years of taxpayer-funded, comprehensive health benefits.

But under Duffy, UTLA has also solidified its national reputation for resisting reform, digging in its heels and falling well behind teachers unions that are changing their schools.

Duffy boasts of defeating midyear "re-norming," a pragmatic plan that school insiders say would have saved $25 million annually by cutting teachers at schools with dropping student enrollment; a yard-duty plan that required teachers, for extra pay, to monitor kids during recess for — get this — one week out of 40 each year; and a plan to place National Board Certified teachers — many of whom are highly trained — at the lowest-performing schools.

"I was appalled when the district proposed moving [National Board Certified] teachers [to struggling schools]," Duffy said at the debate. "You have to look at the district's idea and try to figure out what it was. It was simple — pure power."

Duffy's combative rhetoric can sound like he's leading a 19th-century coal miners union. "We can bring this union to the pinnacle of power, where we were in 1989 ... when we brought this district to its knees!"


Under Duffy, the union has suffered a series of losses and embarrassments. Before consulting teachers, he threw union support behind Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's failed school-takeover plan, which teachers overwhelmingly rejected — twice. A whipped Duffy withdrew official support, but not before the Villaraigosa takeover attempt became a time-consuming debacle. (The courts overturned the mayor's move as unconstitutional — as was widely predicted — because Villaraigosa tried to grab control of the schools even though a duly elected school board was already in charge.)

Then last May, Locke High School in Watts seceded from L.A. Unified, hoping to become a privately managed Green Dot charter school. The move was a symbolic rebuke of both the district and Duffy. That same month, the union suffered a huge blow when it lost a majority on the elected school board, now controlled by Villaraigosa allies.

Duffy's opponents have seized on these downturns — the effects, they say, of his decidedly odd-duck, command-and-control, confrontational style.

"Our union has been mismanaged," Guthrie told L.A. Weekly, "and the consequence of his mismanagement is a district that is quickly falling into chaos and disrepair. I'm more interested in a partnership with the district than with the mayor. I don't want to bring [LAUSD] to its knees." Guthrie and Robinson argue that Duffy's style has also badly hampered efforts to fix the payroll crisis, in which tens of thousands of teachers were overpaid, underpaid or just plain unpaid for many months.


Teachers' mailed-in ballots were scheduled to be counted on the February 21 deadline date. If a runoff vote is required, as many expect, the winner will not be known until mid-March. But many observers are asking — rhetorically — "Does it matter who wins?"

IN OP-EDS IN LOCAL NEWSPAPERS, teachers, columnists and academics have offered broad ideas — mostly borrowed from a nationwide discourse — for reforming L.A.'s broken school system. At the heart of these suggestions is a call to dismantle the rigid and bureaucratic spider web that teachers unions have spun — and that increasingly popular charter schools eschew.

New York City's teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, has become the national model for such reforms, while UTLA is the poster child for resisting almost any change. New York offers big financial incentives to experienced teachers who teach in the most needy schools — an idea fought as outrageous by Los Angeles teachers union leaders.

The platforms pushed by Duffy, Guthrie and Robinson reflect virtually none of these reforms. "They're considered to be a lot more Byzantine than teachers associations throughout the state — and I work with a lot of them," says Caprice Young, former LAUSD board president, now CEO of California Charter Schools Association. "Other teachers associations are a lot more interested in coming up with solutions." As the district's board president, Young advocated breaking LAUSD into smaller districts — and in 2003 was targeted by UTLA for that and other bold ideas. She lost to a union-bankrolled candidate, the late John Lauritzen, who quickly earned a reputation for opposing reform.

Still, there are some differences: Guthrie wants to extend UTLA membership and its costly due-process guarantees to thousands of nonteachers; Guthrie and Duffy want to aggressively unionize the charter schools. Robinson wants to shut charter teachers out of the union.

"There aren't major different platforms," admits Robinson. "It's not so much a different platform as it is a way of doing things. Duffy believes we have to beat people with a two-by-four. I don't, and neither does Linda."

All three are suspicious of reforms unfolding in New York and other cities, such as attempts to objectively measure teacher performance and grant merit pay. They resist any attempts to reduce the estimated $800,000 cost of firing lemon teachers, who are transferred again and again in Los Angeles — a major problem known as the "dance of the lemons."

In fact, the three candidates would rather not acknowledge that bad teachers exist. "I don't talk about bad teachers or bad students," Guthrie says. "I talk about needed guidance."

Joe Hicks, vice president of the nonprofit civil rights group Community Advocates, is one of the many L.A. civic leaders not holding his breath over who wins.

"Teachers unions across the country are seen as impediments to school reform," says Hicks. In Los Angeles, the union needs to "wrestle with that, instead of always just representing individual teachers no matter how sucky they are." Looking over the ballot choices for UTLA this month in Los Angeles, he says, "These people are serious union hacks."


Max Taves can be reached at


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