DFT board finds Conn guilty of misconduct, removes him

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit — After a seven-month tenure marked by clashes between rival union factions, Steve Conn was ousted as president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers after being found guilty of misconduct.

The union’s executive board announced Conn’s removal Wednesday in a notice posted on Local 231’s website.

“In rendering this verdict the Executive Board has determined that the course of conduct alleged, while described in the charges of a small number of members, has a serious detrimental effect on the entire membership, whose willingness to participate in the union is discouraged both because of concerns for their safety at meetings, and because of concern that their participation will be neither welcomed nor allowed,” the notice read.

In a letter to members also posted on the site, the executive board notice said Conn declined to attend an “informal reconciliation conference with the objective of resolving the matter informally.” It also said Conn did not speak during a two-day trial last week on the charges.

The executive board said “after much deliberation,” Conn was found guilty of:

■Illegal cancellation of meetings, illegal attempts to convene special meetings, and failure to preside over meetings in accordance with the bylaws

■Unauthorized affiliation of the DFT with By Any Means Necessary

■Failure to investigate abuse of members

■Failure to address physical assault on a member

■Failure to pay per capita dues

The board’s statement said a charge of conducting a school rally against the wishes of 90 percent of staff was dismissed by DFT Executive Vice President Ivy Bailey.

In a statement Wednesday, Conn was defiant, vowing to seek reinstatement by the local’s members next month. Under the union’s bylaws, a two-thirds vote of members in attendance at the local’s next regular membership meeting would be required to overturn the executive board’s action.

He also took aim at DPS Emergency Manager Darnell Earley and Gov. Rick Snyder.

“The members put me in office and I am fully confident that on September 10, they will do so again,” Conn said. “The Executive Board decision is an overreach and cannot stand.

“From the concocted charges to the secret McCarthyite trial in which my accusers were also the judge and jury, to my expulsion from the union — it is clear that membership control of the union and the tactics of Martin Luther King of militant direct action not only scare the hell out of Snyder and EM Earley, but the DFT Executive Board as well,” Conn said. “... I started a fight to rebuild this union and I want the members of my union to know I pledge to continue this fight.”

Possibly a DFT first

Keith Johnson, a former DFT president who remains a dues-paying member, said he believes it’s the first time in the union’s 84-year history that the president was removed.

“It’s certainly unfortunate that it came to this, but Mr. Conn’s actions … really brought this upon himself,” he said Wednesday evening. “As president, you have a responsibility to uphold the constitution and the bylaws of the DFT. He took an oath to do that, and certainly these allegations for which he was found guilty are blatant violations of his role as president.”

The ouster is “pretty rare, but it does happen,” said Dale Belman, a Michigan State University professor with expertise on labor-market dynamics, public policies and union-management relations.

Circumstances may vary, he said, but generally members of a union and other organizations opt to oust their leader when finding his or her actions to be inadequate or “this isn’t an appropriate officer.”

Conn’s chance of earning enough votes to overturn the decision is “going to be a tall order for him, given what has taken place in the seven months he was president,” Johnson said.

If the members do not vote to reinstate Conn, he could appeal to the AFT Public Review Board, which would make a “final and binding” decision, the DFT’s bylaws state.

With Conn’s removal, executive vice president Bailey becomes interim president until an election can be held, probably within 30-60 days, said Edna Reaves, a former DFT executive vice president. The union represents about 4,000 members.

The fiery Conn, 57, was elected in a runoff in January on a platform demanding an end to pay and benefit concessions, and calling on teachers to “stand up” to the district, Earley and Snyder.

In the notice of its decision, the executive board said Conn allowed members of the civil right protest group BAMN who did not belong to the union to disrupt DFT business.

“There was testimony that BAMN members attended and participated in the January 25 special membership meeting and were abusive to DFT members,” the executive board notice stated. “At the February regular membership meeting the members voted to exclude them from the meeting. President Conn then failed and refused to preside over the next three regular membership meetings and instead held three more special membership meetings.”

The notice also said Conn failed to investigate an incident at the Jan. 25 meeting in which a DFT member reported being “physically threatened ... by persons she believed to be BAMN members” and an incident at a special meeting March 29 in which the same member reported that one of Conn’s supporters grabbed her and threw her cellphone to the ground.

Conn won runoff in January

Tension had been growing in the DFT since Conn was elected president over Reaves, a former executive vice president, in a runoff in January.

“When Mr. Conn came in with the attitude that he was a one-shot president, I knew there would be problems,” Reaves said. “I think it is for the best, that he was voted out of office, but it puts a black eye on the DFT because we couldn’t work it out.”

Reaves said she has already heard from members asking if she will run. “It will be a hard job because supporters of Steve Conn will be angry,” she said.

Besides fighting with some in the DFT, Conn also clashed with other DPS unions.

When he scheduled a Lansing rally in June to protest proposed cuts to district employees’ health care coverage, the Coalition of Detroit Public Schools Unions urged members not to attend. Conn’s response: “They’re stupid, that’s all.”

Last week, Conn issued an emailed “apology and retraction,” saying: “I owe the other leaders in the Coalition of Unions a public apology ...”

Conn also urged teachers to attend protests June 30 against Snyder’s plans to overhaul Detroit’s education system. The same day, 18 DPS schools were closed because about 500 of slightly more than 2,800 teachers were absent.

While some union members have applauded Conn’s passion, Johnson said, “the vast majority of our members certainly want their president to lead but also lead in a principled manner — and that did not occur.”