National union takes over Detroit teachers local

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

A vote by the American Federation of Teachers on Monday night to assume day-to-day operations of the Detroit teachers union comes just months after the AFT took over a Florida local after allegations of election misconduct.

The AFT’s executive council unanimously voted Monday evening to place the Detroit Federation of Teachers in trusteeship.

AFT officials said under a voluntary administratorship, an appointed administrator would handle the union’s day-to-day operations while its current leadership remains in place and will collaborate on decisions.

“The AFT and AFT Michigan understood our Detroit local came to this decision because of what’s at stake for their members and the people of Detroit. The local internal political fights have diverted attention and focus from the external quadruple whammy of austerity, benefit cuts, widespread charterization and layoffs,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “The DFT faces extraordinary challenges requiring an extraordinary response. Through the trusteeship, the DFT, AFT Michigan and the AFT will launch an unprecedented member-engaged, community-involved campaign to fight for public education, for the schools our children need, and for the dignity and respect our members deserve.”

A trustee was expected to be named this month, said Keith Johnson, a retired DFT president and current AFT vice president.

The trusteeship “will certainly help us in terms of our member-to-member contact. It will help us in our reaching out in partnering with the community,” he said after the vote Monday night. “We want stability. ... Quite frankly, there are resources we need that we simply do not have as an individual local. A lot of times our members will say, ‘What is the union doing for me?’ This is an example.”

It’s the first time the AFT has taken over operations of its Detroit local, according to Johnson.

“It has not happened within the DFT, but it does happen,” he said. “The AFT represents locals all over the country and sometimes puts them in trusteeships for various reasons.”

Four months ago, the AFT took over the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, an Orlando-based local that remains under supervision.

The local’s president, other officers and the board of directors all were removed from office, according to AFT administrator Dennis Kelly, who was sent from San Francisco to take over.

According to reports, board members at the Florida local asked the AFT to institute an administratorship. Ivy Bailey, interim president of the DFT, initiated a similar request to AFT president Randi Weingarten in October.

In the Florida case, the AFT began an investigation into the Orange County local and found multiple instances of election misconduct, according to reports.

Kelly said he had been the president of the United Educators of San Francisco and was asked to go to Florida. He said the AFT’s action appears to be working.

“We’re getting the local back up on its two feet and hope to get the local leaders involved so I can go back home to my triplet grandchildren,” he said. The plan is for the local union to have a new election by the beginning of the 2016-17 school year.

In the Orange County local, all of the removed union leaders remain members, but there are no officers.

“I come in and make sure the bills are paid, that the front and back doors are locked — all the day-to-day things,” said Kelly.

Johnson said AFT needs to step in because of a continuing battle over the DFT’s leadership. The local’s executive board ousted then-president Steve Conn and expelled him from the union in August after finding him guilty of internal charges of misconduct, including illegally canceling meetings and failing to pay per capita dues to the AFT.

Conn has appealed his removal from office and the union to the AFT.

“The trusteeship becomes necessary because of the instability of the leadership due to the appeal by Steve Conn,” he said. “Meantime, the DFT cannot remain dormant. We must move forward while the leadership is uncertain.”

Johnson said a new election for a permanent president cannot take place until Conn’s appeal is resolved.

“There are resources and assistance we need from the AFT, but we can’t get them while this is going on,” he said. “We would still have an interim president, executive vice president and executive board, but the AFT, for example, will take over duties like making sure the dues are paid, and making member-to-member contact.”

(313) 222-2296

Detroit News Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed to this report.