Gayle Force

A vigorous advocate for teachers and the bane of HISD administrators, confrontational union boss Gayle Fallon wields a growing power over the direction of Houston's public schools

"I remember she just ignored them," Colvin says. "We were there for the kids, not the administrators. The administrators would pick on little things. They would just harass us."

Fallon was teaching government through case law, showing the students how to stand up for their rights and petition government about their grievances. When the water well for the high school was cut off for three days, the administration insisted on keeping the school open, and toilets were flushed with buckets of water.

"We all got into trouble for teaching the kids how to find information and get it to the news media," Colvin says. "The kids called the TV stations and the administration wrote us up for not handling discipline."

Colvin, Fallon and some of the other teachers began taking over the leadership of the Aldine Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate. Fallon got the idea of running a candidate for the school board, and the state organization, the Texas State Teachers' Association, sent national campaign help. The teachers' candidate lost, and the administration transferred the six ringleaders out of the alternative learning center. What really burned the teachers was that the administration denied them their promised summer work, which was to evaluate the individualized curriculum they had spent the past year writing. Fallon and five others were told by friends in the Aldine administration that once they had been transferred, their new principals would start writing them up and get them fired.

Fallon says she called the TSTA and asked for legal help. "The whole top line of the Aldine Teachers Association was being transferred," she says "and I called the state representative and was told, 'They haven't fired you yet. Call us when they do.' I developed a deep hatred of the TSTA. They got us out on a limb and then sawed it off."

Fallon also developed a strong dislike for administrators.
"It was the first time in my life I hated them," she says. "That transfer had nothing to do with children and it was retaliation for protected political action. I would have retired in Aldine."

Once she realized that the NEA affiliate wouldn't fight for her job, she found one at Smiley High School in the mostly black district of North Forest, farther up the Eastex Freeway. Still smarting from her treatment by the dominant teachers organization, she began organizing a chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, and by her second year in 1981, she had recruited 175 members.

"I had just finished a master's degree in educational administration at Sam Houston State," Fallon says, "and I didn't want to be an administrator because I was so angry at the way teachers were treated. We had unseated two board members and we had beat the administration in court on repressive behavior. The administrators were starting to realize there were certain things they couldn't do any more."

The Houston Federation of Teachers had been founded by a group of HISD middle school teachers in May 1973 in reaction to the attempt by a Jackson Middle School principal to fire a popular special-education teacher. Several of the teachers had collected money to hire attorney Larry Watts to defend the teacher, who eventually won his grievance and was reinstated. (To this day Watts serves as one of the HFT's two primary attorneys.)

Membership in the union grew after a failed strike by the dominant teachers organization, the Houston Teachers Association, the local NEA affiliate, which in the early '70s represented 7,000 to 8,000 teachers. The district superintendent, George Garver, had come from a northern state with collective bargaining and had granted the association's leaders the right to bargain the teachers' contract. When negotiations broke down in the summer of 1973, the HTA called for a strike vote at a meeting at Delmar Stadium. Several thousand teachers at the meeting descended from the bleachers onto the field to indicate their commitment to strike. But the strike was poorly organized and led. Less than a third of the teachers actually stayed out, and no schools were forced to close. The strikers were docked for a day's pay and told to return to work or be fired. Support for the HTA crumbled.

The HFT attracted new members chiefly by fighting grievances and holding the district to the letter of its policies. The union won grievance after grievance, often turning them into local media events.

By the summer of 1981, the HFT had grown to 1,200 members and it needed help. When the union posted two staff jobs, Fallon immediately applied, and was hired to be the union's chief grievance officer. Union leader Richard Shaw wanted her because he thought she was competitive and would go for the throat.

"One of my first grievances was against a principal who was my best friend," says Fallon, "a guy I played the guitar with all the time. But he wouldn't stay off the intercom and he kept interrupting classes."

Fallon said she attended every grievance hearing she could, asking lawyers how to structure a case and ask questions. During the next year the union added 800 more members and the case load began to weigh heavily. Fallon was doing political organizing for HFT as well.

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