My apologies if this ends up sounding like a dispatch from some war-torn Third World country, but it really is a tale from southeastern Maryland.
The elected officers and members of the board of directors of the Wicomico County Education Association (WCEA) scheduled a rank-and-file vote for the 1,000-member local union to end its affiliation with the Maryland State Education Association and the National Education Association. The issues were the usual ones in such cases – the local officers felt an awful lot of dues money was going up the line to the parent unions in exchange for not much in services for the local. After last week’s events, that vote – scheduled for April 28 and 29 – is very much up in the air.
Upset by the actions of WCEA’s board, Gary Hammer, a union site representative at Bennett Middle School, began circulating petitions to recall all the WCEA officers and members of the board, and to suspend them from office until the recall took place. Hammer and his supporters claim to have gathered 700 signatures, which would constitute a majority of the bargaining unit.
Last Tuesday, Hammer and others “entered the WCEA offices, changed the locks and codes, removed or altered office equipment and purported to illegally fire the Association’s only employee.” According to WCEA president Kelly Stephenson, “These actions were not taken in accordance with the governing documents of WCEA or in accordance with the law.”
Stephenson insists the disaffiliation vote will go on as scheduled.
As any good coup plotters would, Hammer and his associates seized the radio station, er, union web page. They have posted this message while deleting much of the site’s previous content:
On April 15 a majority of the members of the Wicomico County Education Association stood together and took necessary steps to prevent a small minority of members from dismantling the union with attempts to disaffiliate from our state and national Associations. The members have spoken and have declared that we are stronger together, and the support we have from the Maryland State Education and National Education Association adds to that strength. We have collected the necessary signatures to recall the officers of WCEA and have put an interim board of managers in place, effective immediately. This board will assume day to day operations of the Association and will move to conduct an election of a new slate of officers. These actions clearly reflect the wishes of the majority of our members who are anxious to move forward and who remain committed to giving Wicomico County’s public school students the excellent instruction and service they deserve.
They haven’t yet gained control of the union’s Facebook page, although there have been no updates from Stephenson or the other elected officers since last Wednesday. The internecine battle has already descended into anonymous accusations and name-calling.
It seems almost beside the point to note that there is no provision in WCEA’s by-laws to remove the union’s entire elected leadership with a single petition whose signatures have not been verified by any independent authority. Nor is there any provision for the summary displacement of elected officers by an unelected “board of managers.” Nor have the charges contained in the recall petition been examined to see if they meet the recall requirements set out in the by-laws.
It is beside the point because the legality of such actions becomes secondary once you have succeeded in pulling them off. The American Federation of Teachers has turned into an art the recapture of rogue locals, with one such incident being declared illegal by the U.S. Department of Labor, and moot at the same time. A similar disaffiliation vote will take place next month in Modesto, California, though the California Teachers Association does seems to regard it as a legitimate election.
A legal battle will almost certainly arise out of this, but if the WCEA officers want to retain office, they had best respond to the coup’s tactics in like manner.