Baltimore Teachers Unseat Incumbents, Who Demand a Do-Over

What happens when new leaders run for office and beat an eight-term incumbent? In the Baltimore Teachers Union, it seems, the incumbent tries for a second bite at the apple.

A slate called “The Union We Deserve,” backed by two rank-and-file caucuses, ran for office this spring. Its platform was to open the union up to its own members and join with parents to fight for fully funded public schools.

To the surprise of many, the challengers won the union presidency as well as the 19 executive board seats for teachers. The incumbents held onto the 20 paraprofessional seats, producing a split board.

Newly elected President Diamonté Brown of the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (BMORE) and the other newly elected officers got the keys and are working out of the union hall. But a week after her victory was announced, Brown received a letter stating that a new election had been ordered.

The incumbent president, Marietta English, had alleged that the challengers violated election rules in the teacher unit only, and said she would appeal. The elections committee—whose members were all appointed by English—threw out the results and ordered a new election, only for the presidency and teacher unit seats.

In the letter, the elections committee did not announce any specific charges. It did not explain what violations it judged to have interfered enough to sway the outcome. Nor did the committee give the Union We Deserve candidates any opportunity to see or respond to any charges leveled against them.

The charges mentioned in Baltimore Sun coverage on Facebook include commonplace organizing practices such as campaigning on school property and visiting members at home.

The allegations also include election procedure problems that only the incumbents would be responsible for, like the fact that one of the polling sites never opened.

HURDLES TO DEMOCRACY

Is all this legal? In the private sector, the federal Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act establishes some basic rights for union members in internal elections, including due process.

Public school teachers and school employees are covered instead by state law, which often follows the standards set out in the LMRDA.

The winning slate has asked the national union, the American Federation of Teachers, to intervene to conduct an investigation into the decision to overturn the election. AFT President Randi Weingarten announced that the union will investigate.

The caucuses are circulating a demanding that the election results be allowed to stand. AFT members are signing a solidarity petition as well.

With one interruption, the Baltimore Teachers Union has had the same president for 20 years. Contested elections have been few.

The activists said their campaign ran into hurdles. The vote was held in person, and at only at a small number of locations—not at every school. The voting window was shorter than in previous elections; polls closed at 5:30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m. Unlike in previous elections, members weren’t allowed to request absentee ballots, even if they had a school field trip or illness.

These barriers to voting were consistent with BMORE’s overall assessment of how the union has been run: with no transparency, no clear procedures, and as a consequence, low member participation.

 

“Our campaign was focused on going around being present [in schools],” said newly elected middle school Vice President Zach Taylor. “We campaigned on transparency, becoming a high-participation union with true member voice.”

Barbara Harvey, a labor lawyer who specializes in internal union election law, said the decision to rerun the election denied the winning slate basic due process, which includes the right to “an opportunity to see the charges, respond to the charges, present evidence, and hear and rebut the evidence of the opposing party,” she said.

“It is not unusual for incumbent candidates who are in trouble politically to overstep the limits on their powers in a desperate attempt to win,” Harvey said.

An investigation would have to prove that the Union We Deserve team committed the violations and benefited enough to affect the election outcome.

“If these are the protests filed by the losing slate [complaining of their own conduct], they are admitting their own misconduct,” Harvey said. “If you are the violator, you don’t get the opportunity to accuse yourself of wrongdoing and get a new election.

“If you are the victim of unlawful election misconduct that you or your slate did not cause, that is when the law allows for a rerun.”

A BIGGER VISION

BMORE formed in 2017 when educator activists, inspired by strikes and campaigns in Chicago, St. Paul, and other teacher union locals, wanted to get involved in their union to take on school underfunding and racial disparities in Baltimore.

BMORE has been active in the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators, a network of teacher locals and caucuses around the U.S. that are pushing for more democratic unions and fights for more school funding, more resources for students, and smaller class sizes, as exemplified by this year’s teacher strike in Los Angeles.

Taylor said the union in Baltimore has been too narrowly focused on wages and benefits. The newly elected team wants to fight for more staff and resources in schools. “Our teachers are the front line,” he said. “We are trying to have as many resources available as we can.”

Even before they ran for office, BMORE teachers started doing the work of the union. The caucus has organized a Black Lives Matter week of action for two years running. It helped form the Black Teacher Recruitment and Retention Working Group with the district.

 

During an extreme cold snap last winter, Baltimore schools were without heat, sparking public outrage. BMORE started a petition and delivered 1,500 signatures to the district with a set of demands to address not only the lack of heat, but also the overall state of school buildings. That spurred the district to immediately make the necessary repairs to turn the heat back on.

The activists found union officers uninterested in changing the status quo or opening up closed-door meetings. So BMORE teamed up with another group, the Caucus of Educators for Democracy and Equity, to run for top positions in the union.

CEDE’s Facebook page had become a place for members to ask for help on contract violations and workplace problems. Caucus members would help each other and share information.

“Most of the people we ran with have already been vocal,” said Brown, the newly elected president. “There’s a trust factor when we say, ‘We are going to do this,’ because we’ve already been doing it—just not as union leadership.”

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