Once mighty teacher union's influence on wane
By STEPHEN HEGARTY and KELLY RYAN GILMER
At a time when education is Florida's defining issue, the organization that claims to speak for teachers is a muffled voice in the debate.
While the Florida Education Association represents thousands of teachers, it rarely plays an influential role in the state Capitol these days. Local affiliates are increasingly under pressure from their own teachers, who question their effectiveness. Gov. Jeb Bush, Republican lawmakers and, increasingly, business interests are more aggressive about identifying public education's shortcomings and pursuing solutions.
Two years after Florida's two teachers unions merged in a bid to speak with one powerful voice, the Florida Education Association faces serious challenges:
Teachers complain local unions don't push hard enough for pay increases at a time when they are held more accountable for student performance. They wonder what the union is doing to justify annual dues, which are $465 in Pinellas and $525 in Hillsborough.
Roughly 6 out of 10 teachers in Florida are union members, and many of the members are nearing retirement. Younger teachers appear to be slower to join.
Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-led Legislature are ignoring the union's objections and often openly hostile to the organization as they create school grades, tuition vouchers and performance pay for teachers.
The union's political endorsements and fundraising are rarely the difference between winning and losing elections.
"Historically, the teachers unions have been the most active, most influential of all the unions in Florida -- a major player," said Bruce Nissen, a professor at the Center of Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University. "But that's changing."
There was a time when teachers raised their voices and Florida took notice.
When Florida's teachers walked out on strike in 1968, educators were angry with a Republican governor and wanted more money.
Sounds like little has changed in 34 years.
But things did change after that strike, which was led by Tampa union official and future governor Bob Martinez. The unions won the right to collectively bargain on salaries and working conditions, and gave up the right to strike.
So while New Jersey schools were recently shut down by a teacher walkout, Florida teachers find themselves with little leverage in a tough economy.
For Pat Tornillo, the raspy-voiced, white-haired Miami-Dade union leader, negotiating has come to this: Agreeing to help the struggling school district by forcing teachers to take off two days without pay.
The teachers voted it down last month and accused Tornillo of selling out.
"When I go to a school, some of the younger teachers are ready to go on strike tomorrow," Tornillo said. "Teachers are frustrated."
In Tampa Bay school districts and elsewhere, some teachers say union leaders are too chummy with administrators and school board members.
"I've had union officials tell me, "we have a wonderful relationship with management,' " said Don Hill, an 18-year veteran teacher at Armwood High School in Seffner. "You know what? Teachers do not want to hear that."
Jim Gunnin, who teaches at Osceola High School in mid Pinellas, likes the union's efforts to protect teacher rights and reduce class size. But he said they could push harder for higher salaries.
"I do feel they might be too cozy," said Gunnin, who has been a union member for most of his 19 years as a teacher. "By definition a union is antimanagement. It does have to be a little confrontational to stand up for us."
In Pinellas County, a splinter group called Teachers United For the Future has formed to lobby for teachers and students more aggressively than they think the union has.
At a recent School Board meeting, TUFF leaders demanded that the School Board raise teacher salaries by at least 20 percent, which would be wildly optimistic even in good economic times.
"The time has come for much more than lip service," said Carrie Markley, a fifth-grade teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary School in Clearwater. "We expect a living wage."
The average Pinellas teacher salary is $35,392.
As Hillsborough County school officials worry about hiring new teachers to replace those nearing retirement, Yvonne Lyons wonders how she will lure the newcomers into the union and keep them on the job.
"Our major emphasis has to be on new teachers -- getting them hired and keeping them around," said Lyons, the executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association.
A recent analysis of membership demographics in Hillsborough shows about two of every three teachers with at least 20 years of experience are union members. Just one of three teachers with five years or less experience has joined.
"Young people are not as prone to join things," said Florida Education Association president Maureen Dinnen.
Just as school districts are devising packages to attract new teachers, the unions are courting new members by promising peer mentoring, teacher orientation and better starting salaries.
The union's challenges in Tallahassee are even more daunting.
Dinnen listened as J. Stanley Marshall of the conservative James Madison Institute outlined a plan for dealing with Florida's "union-related problems" before a legislative committee last year.
"It was something we suspected, but all of a sudden there it was, right in front of our faces -- this animosity," Dinnen said.
Myron Lieberman of the Education Policy Institute, the author of the study cited by Marshall, said in an interview that the unions are the enemy for Republican lawmakers. He said legislators should not back off in their efforts to undermine the union's effectiveness.
"Why wait until they win back the House or the Senate?" Lieberman said. "Now is the time to take action against them."
Plenty of action has occurred already.
In recent years, lawmakers have made it easier for districts to fire new teachers. They have found ways to boost teachers' paychecks (last year's $850 bonus) while giving unions no say in where that money goes. Now lawmakers want school superintendents to consider privatizing cafeteria workers, school bus transportation and other school services -- a move that could decimate union membership.
Lawmakers are careful to draw distinctions between teachers and unions.
"Making life difficult for union bosses is something we like to do," said House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, "but we don't want to do that for classroom teachers."
Some of the union's natural allies in Tallahassee suggest union leaders undermine themselves.
"It's been very adversarial (on the part of the union), to the point where I've been in some legislators' offices and someone came in and said they were a member of FEA and were asked to leave," said Tom Greer, an Osceola County School Board member and legislative chairman for the Florida School Boards Association.
The FEA also has picked fights with its legislative soul mates.
Florida School Board Association director Wayne Blanton wants many of the same things the FEA wants, including, more money for schools and more local control. In January, Blanton stood with Bush and praised the governor's school spending proposal as a good plan in bad economic times.
Blanton said he knows when to pick fights and when to get along. But the teachers union was outraged.
"Our job is to advocate for public schools, not to get along with public officials," said Cathy Kelly, head of government relations for the FEA. "It would be nice if you could do both. But sometimes you can't."
Political campaigns may be the forum for the teachers union's final stand.
Charles Whitehead, former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party, speaks eloquently of the union's potential to be "the most powerful political force in the state of Florida."
But he acknowledged that often didn't turn out to be the case.
"It's like a tiger with no teeth," Whitehead said. "The secret of an endorsement is to make that endorsement worthwhile. They need to back it up."
In some cases, the union has been influential. Without teacher union support in 1994, Lawton Chiles may not have beaten Bush in the closest Florida governor's race in modern history. In 1998, former high school football coach Bob Henriquez of Tampa became the only Democrat to beat an incumbent Republican lawmaker with the union's help.
"When you're a challenger like I was," Henriquez said, "you're not going to outspend the other side. But you can outwork them, outhustle them. I had a lot of help."
The FEA already has had some impact in the budding race for governor.
Democrat Bill McBride, a Tampa lawyer and political newcomer, won the FEA endorsement in January. That gave McBride more credibility as he tries to win the Democratic nomination over former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and others.
The FEA has made unseating Bush its No. 1 political priority. The result is that this year the union will be more more selective, withholding support from legislative candidates who may support union positions but face long odds.
But by joining forces with McBride, the union has staked its future to a long shot. How well he fares may well determine the union's credibility as a viable force in Florida policy and politics.
"They need to put people in the streets; they need to offer money and manpower," said Whitehead, former Democratic Party chairman. "This is a real test of their power. It's show and tell time."
-- Staff writer Alisa Ulferts and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
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