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The power of the union leader depends on relations with the superintendent, Mincberg says, and Paige is more inclined to keep her out. (Paige declined to be interviewed about his relationship with Fallon, other than to say his record in support of teachers speaks for itself.) Under previous superintendent Frank Petruzielo, Mincberg says, "They sat down with a beer and worked things out." Mincberg says Fallon doesn't like it that she can't get her problems with the administration settled with a phone call anymore. And Fallon cannot attack Paige too strongly, Mincberg says, because he is a visibly popular black leader, the first African-American superintendent in the history of HISD.
Fallon is smart and funny, and very aggressive, Mincberg says, but she doesn't believe her union has much of an effect on school board elections or local politics.
Trustee Don McAdams, who represents a largely white district including Bellaire and West University, says Fallon is "not a big player."
"I don't see her as a positive force for the schools because her priority is not student performance," McAdams says. "Gayle has not been a positive force. All I can see her doing is due process. But she can be a very effective irritant."
Especially irritating was Fallon's attempt two years ago to unseat McAdams in the last election, when she supported Keith Rudy, son of local businessman Alan Rudy. McAdams won with 53 percent of the vote, but he was forced to spend more money and energy against a more competitive opponent than he had faced in his first election. A former small college president with a doctorate in history from Duke, McAdams says that the key to school reform is concentrating more power in the hands of principals, and holding them accountable for school performance.
But concentrating more power in the hands of principals plays into the hands of Fallon's union, which organizes on the fear of teachers that principals cannot be trusted to wield power fairly and humanely. While teachers have long argued that they are professionals and want to be treated as professionals, the reality is that they have only limited control of what happens in their workplace. They seldom get to pick the textbooks and curriculum they use. And unlike most other professionals, they are governed by a constantly changing and extensive set of state and local policies.
Of the three largest teachers organizations in the Houston Independent School District, the HFT is by far the largest. In fact, if it surpasses 5,000 members this fall, as Fallon expects it to, the HFT will be the largest local in the Harris County AFL-CIO, surpassing the Communications Workers. The union's ethnic makeup fairly closely reflects that of the teacher work force, Fallon says, about 40 percent white, 40 percent black, and the rest mostly Hispanic. Its dues are $337 a year ($200 for some clerical employees and teachers' aides), which produces an annual budget of $1.7 million. For that money, members get a dental plan, training on such issues as student discipline and school policy, and an aggressive defense if they are sued, disciplined or fired.
Because many teachers leave the district each year and sometimes change their memberships according to the degree of comfort they have with their building principal, Fallon's stewards must recruit a thousand new members a year to keep growing at the rate of 200 to 300 a year. The union tracks its organizing efforts in more than 250 work sites on large wall charts in its main office. "If we had a warm, cordial employer," Fallon cracks, "we would not be growing."
The other two teachers organizations are the largely white Congress of Houston Teachers, which claims 2,200 members, and the largely black Houston Education Association, which claims 2,300 members. That means more than half of the district's 12,000 teachers have been organized. (Counselors, school nurses, some administrators, teachers' aides and blue-collar workers also belong to the organizations.)
The Congress of Houston Teachers, which has no larger statewide or national affiliation, calls itself a professional organization, not a union, says its president, HISD teacher Steve Antley. The Congress does not endorse political candidates. Unlike unions, which want to become an exclusive bargaining agent, "we believe in freedom of association," Antley says. "We view our approach as more collegial."
The other power in HISD is the Houston Education Association, which is affiliated with the three-million-member National Education Association. Its executive director, Lee Barnes, claims the HEA has more political clout than Fallon's union because of its national and statewide membership. The HEA charges dues of $322 a year, and also offers a vigorous defense for teachers, Barnes says.
But Barnes is contemptuous of Fallon's confrontational style, and says she creates fear and confusion in order to build membership. In an HEA news release last year Barnes called for a criminal investigation of Fallon's union for its recommendation of an insurance carrier to the board, and he also told HEA organizers that Fallon had made inappropriate use of HFT funds. Fallon sued him for slander. After the first deposition, Barnes said, his lawyers decided to settle with Fallon, who put the money in her union's political fund. Fallon said she was surprised that Barnes had mentioned the suit, since under the terms of the settlement both sides had promised not to discuss it.