Last week, a group of teacher union members seized control of the Wicomico County Education Association (WCEA) in Maryland without a vote or any authority except the signatures on a petition they created. It was a bizarre event, unique in the annals of National Education Association history, as far as I know. There are many instances of national or state unions establishing trusteeships over rogue locals, and employing tactics similar to those used in Wicomico to gain control. But in those cases, the parent unions had the cloak of union by-laws and affiliate agreements to justify their actions. In Wicomico, the actions of the “interim managers” are entirely extra-constitutional.
While the question of who engineered the overthrow of the union’s entire elected leadership is still a mystery for the time being, we can ascertain the timeline and key ingredients.
Citing the costs of maintaining affiliation with the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) and NEA, WCEA’s officers planned to put the question of continuing the relationship to the local union’s representative assembly, which consists of the building representatives of each school site. This action was controversial, and one of the major concerns of the opposition was that the question would not be presented to the entire rank-and-file.
MSEA seemed most alarmed by the prospect. In a letter to Wicomico members, MSEA made its position plain. “Actually, MSEA wholly supports an all-member secret ballot vote on the very important issue of disaffiliation,” the memo states. “Because of the importance of bylaws and the impact of this amendment, the best and fairest procedure is to conduct an all-member secret ballot vote.”
On March 19, however, the WCEA representative assembly voted not to take any actions to amend the by-laws prior to the end of the 2014-15 school year. Opponents of disaffiliation believed this put the matter to rest, citing the representative assembly as “the governing body of the organization.”
The WCEA officers and board saw it differently. They believed the rank-and-file had the ultimate decision-making authority and scheduled the all-member vote for April 28 and 29.
A group of building representatives, led by Gary Hammer, saw this action as a subversion of the will of the assembly, and set out to recall all sitting officers and board members from office. The WCEA by-laws set a low threshold for recalls – a petition containing the signatures of 20 percent of the membership, as long as the signatures came from at least 10 school sites.
They had a few problems, though:
a) A recall could only be initiated because of “an alleged violation of the Code of Ethics of the Education Profession or for alleged malfeasance, misfeasance, malfeasance in office.” It would be a stretch to label the calling of an all-member election as an act of misfeasance or malfeasance, but this was not an insurmountable obstacle.
b) The petition had to be submitted to the board of directors, who would verify its compliance with the by-laws and appoint a review board to authenticate the signatures.
c) There was no provision to recall every officer with a single petition.
Hammer and his associates cut this Gordian knot by circulating a second petition, which would immediately suspend from office all the WCEA officers and board members and appoint a group of “interim managers” to run the organization. The group claims to have 700 valid signatures on that petition, a number which would constitute a majority of the membership.
If the first petition had technical difficulties and disputable assertions, the second one was completely ad hoc. A petition with the signatures of every WCEA member would not give someone the authority to suspend the elected officers.
At 3:30 p.m. on April 15, WCEA president Kelly Stephenson and office manager Margaret Roe left the building for the day, locking the door behind them. The only remaining person in the building was MSEA UniServ representative Marinus van Kuilenburg.
Sometime during the evening of the 15th, the “interim managers” managed to gain entry to the building, change passwords for the email accounts, cancel the union’s credit cards, and change the locks on the doors. At some point they were also able to persuade the bank to change the signature cards on the union’s account.
Around the same time, they dispatched messengers to the homes of Stephenson and several other officers to present them with the recall petition and the petition appointing the interim managers. Some of the notifications were mailed to board members, so the seizure of the office occurred before all the affected officers even knew of the recall.
Having quickly disposed of the union’s entire elected hierarchy, the interim managers then fired officer manager Roe, whose own employment contract, as you might imagine, does not allow for summary termination without due process.
With control of WCEA’s electronic communications, Hammer and the managers notified the members of their action with an e-mail blast and web page statement.
“We have established a Review Board to handle the recall process as outlined in Article XII of the WCEA Bylaws,” they stated, which in effect means they will be in charge of authenticating the petition signatures they themselves gathered.
MSEA’s role in all of this is unclear. The toppled WCEA officers are convinced the state union masterminded the plot in an effort to avoid a disaffiliation vote. Indeed, it’s hard to believe there was no collusion at some level both prior to and immediately after the event.
However, this is a tricky situation for MSEA. MSEA’s officers may have found a disaffiliation vote threatening, but they can hardly be thrilled with the precedent of members seizing control of a local and bouncing the elected officers and employees like so many lingering customers in a saloon at closing time.
Asked to comment about the situation in Wicomico, MSEA director of communications Adam Mendelson told EIA, “Local WCEA members are currently engaged in a democratic process of determining who their leaders will be and whether they will continue to affiliate with MSEA/NEA. We trust and respect their decisions.”
That is a neutral statement, but one wonders if it would have been equally neutral if the sides were reversed, and disaffiliation supporters had ousted MSEA-backed incumbents.
For their part, the WCEA officers have retained counsel, and asked for a restraining order against the interim managers. The pleading is straightforward:
“There is no authority for Defendants to suspend Plaintiffs from office immediately following the presentation of the petition for recall. There is also no authority for Defendants to circulate a petition authorizing the Individual Defendants to act as ‘Interim Managers.’ The Bylaws do not envision using the recall process as a coup d’etat, which is, in effect, how Defendants have utilized the recall process.”
A hearing is scheduled for Thursday, May 1st in the Wicomico County Circuit Court.