DENVER – The nation’s largest federation of union organizations is gearing-up for a fight to oust school board members in Douglas County, members whose tenure has been defined by ambitious reforms that have helped notch high marks for student achievement – and rankled state and national union bosses.
But when the powerful AFL-CIO, and their constituent arm the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), flex their financial and political muscle in the form of campaign commercials, attack mailers, and paid union canvassers in Douglas County neighborhoods, the familiar AFL-CIO and AFT monikers won’t be anywhere in sight.
Instead, the AFL-CIO and AFT will be funneling their activities through a group with a name that is more local, and far more Mom and Apple Pie – Douglas County Classrooms.
Mandy Sheets, a representative for the teachers union, told Clayton Woullard of The Denver Post in December that the Douglas County Classrooms group was created to oppose the school board’s reform efforts.
The attempt by the AFL-CIO and AFT to rebrand itself in the appearance of a more local organization is a likely consequence of the public relations debacle associated with the high-profile Chicago teacher’s strike last year.
Many of the same arguments and fault-lines that played themselves out in the Chicago brouhaha are also at work in the impending Douglas County fight. That may be why the union’s chief, Randi Weingarten, made a “solidarity” trip to Colorado late last year.
At the time of Weingarten’s visit, State Senator Ted Harvey (R-Highlands Ranch) told the union president in a letter that Chicago-style AFL-CIO tactics would backfire in Douglas County.
“[O]ur community is not interested in union bullying, strikes, ham-handed petitions or any of the other disingenuous tactics you embraced in Chicago last month,” Harvey wrote in October. “Indeed, the local chapter of AFT has already spent too much time organizing protests, circulating petitions, and dropping hateful fliers that attack the proponents of school reform.”
Critics say that that Douglas County Classrooms amounts to little more than a campaign cash shell game.
“The AFL-CIO has been remarkably effective in moving money from its members into partisan political activity through shadowy third party groups,” said McNulty. “It looks like the union in Douglas County has taken note and decided to do their own money laundering.”
Harvey suggested that Douglas County residents would see through the union name game.
“If it looks like a union and smells like a union…” Harvey said of Douglas County Classrooms.
Even so, union rebranding efforts are likely to continue. With previous union protests failing to garner measurable support from the community, the success of organized labor against the reform-minded board will require a more aggressive political campaign strategy.
Of course, nuanced debate has never been the union’s strong suit. The union has been a hysterical critic of nearly every district action, criticizing the school board for implementing performance pay for teachers, and for eliminating subsidies for union executives’ salaries and expenses. The union filed a lawsuit Friday essentially asking a judge to force the district to reinstate various terms of the collective-bargaining agreement, which expired June 30.
And union disagreement with the board hasn’t been limited policy issues. The union also protested on behalf of school administrators who were terminated for reportedly attending official morning meetings while under the influence of alcohol late last year. At least one of the administrators was impaired, registering a blood alcohol level of .078 according to the Castle Rock News Press.
While the AFL-CIO and AFT continue to use many of the same hardball tactics that were brought to bear in the Chicago teachers’ union strike, the unions seem keenly aware that a more local-sounding name is needed during the Douglas County school board fight, so as to prevent the accusation that outside interests are trying to carry sway in a local school board race.
That does not mean, however, that the AFL-CIO and the AFT won’t potentially spend millions attacking school reformers in Douglas County. The attacks will likely instead be the work of Douglas County Classrooms, a wholly-owned and controlled subsidiary of the union.