Friday, September 03, 2010


By Connie Llanos, Staff Writer | LA Daily News/from Contra Costa Times Online |

United Teachers Los Angeles head A.J. Duffy makes no apologies for aggressively defending the rights of the 45,000 teachers, substitutes and counselors he represents. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

09/03/2010 10:40:25 PM PDT --As head of the nation's second-largest local teachers union, A.J. Duffy has become as well known for his color coordinated wing-tip shoes, suspenders and double-breasted suits as he has for his feisty attitude and volatile remarks.

With the build of a stocky bulldog, the Brooklyn native makes no apologies for barking and biting to defend the rights of the 45,000 teachers, substitutes and counselors he represents.

In his final year as president of United Teachers Los Angeles, Duffy says he'll remain committed to his members but he's also determined to get back to what he calls his true passion.

"School reform is what puts a fire in my belly," Duffy said, sitting at the head of the cherry wood conference table that sits at one end of his 11th floor office on Wilshire Boulevard west of downtown.

"It bothers me when people don't see both sides of me... yes, I am a firebrand but I'm also a person who has shown the ability to be calm and articulate... I've been an advocate for reform," Duffy said.

While some critics have have argued that Duffy and the union have stood in the way of reform in Los Angeles, the 66-year-old says a desire to improve schools and working conditions for teachers drove him to run for UTLA president.

A Los Angeles Unified teacher since 1981, Duffy ran in 2005 on a slate that promised to bring about change within the union and more local control to schools.

Virtually from the time he became president, he's been faced with a barrage of


"It has been nonstop," said Gregg Solkovits, UTLA's vice president for secondary schools. "I've been involved in the teachers union for 28 years and I've never seen anything like it."

Within a year of becoming head of UTLA, Duffy delivered a 6 percent pay raise for teachers — but the honeymoon period didn't last.

Union stuck in middle

A power struggle over the local school district developed as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to wrest control of LAUSD, the school board fought to keep its power, and the union remained stuck in between.

"He had real ideas about what teacher reforms should be and about improving education, but he came up against a political hornets nest that was impossible for anyone to predict or control," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Duffy brokered a deal supporting Villaraigosa's school takeover but failed to gain the support of his union's governing bodies. That earned Duffy some enemies within UTLA and uncovered real divisions within the union's leadership.

"I felt like we were trying to get the district to implement teacher-led reforms, and they were not treating us like partners," Duffy said.

<< A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, will be termed out this spring after spending five years at the helm of the powerful labor organization. He was photographed at his office on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2010. (Michael Owen Baker/Staff Photographer)

Looking back, Duffy refers to that period as "my Clinton-era health care debacle."

From that point on the challenges haven't ceased.

LAUSD's massive financial issues have threatened — and eliminated — the jobs of hundreds of local teachers, counselors and librarians.

Layoffs drew attention to the union-supported seniority system that forced the school district to let go of teachers based on who had been working the shortest time — not who had been doing the best job.

UTLA also continued to voice its opposition to independently run charter schools, which do not have to hire union workers.

'Choice' triggers tension

Charter campuses have become increasingly popular among local parents and politicians who support their innovative methods.

Community pressure to overhaul schools also prompted the LAUSD school board to launch drastic reform plans like "Public School Choice."

That effort allowed charter operators and nonprofit agencies to bid to take over public campuses and threatened more union jobs.

UTLA fiercely opposed the plan, calling it a "school giveaway," creating an all-out battle between the union and the school board.

That tension often played itself out in heated debates at school board meetings, where some union members even called for the recall of board members, including LAUSD board President Monica Garcia.

Garcia admitted that her relationship with the union leader has been challenging, but she said she looks forward to working with him through the end of his term.

"The economic crisis and stronger demand — from the community, school board and superintendent — for reforms has created a tough environment," Garcia said.

"A union leader's role is to represent their members but this environment is calling for union leaders to be part of reform and districtwide change in a different way."

Had to be combative

LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines said even while he has clashed with Duffy on some matters, they have maintained solid relations.

"It has been an open, candid and direct working relationship that's been tense at times but we've never avoided dealing with issues," Cortines said. "In many areas he's been very helpful such as settling disputes at schools. ... Things have moved slow at times, but there hasn't been a time where I have called and he hasn't been available."

While many criticize the union for obstructing reform, Duffy says LAUSD leadership simply hasn't made it easy for UTLA to embrace reform.

"We've been a combative union because we've had to be ... because the district's never wanted to see us as partners," Duffy said.

Duffy said he knows that there are many serious changes that the union needs to support.

Those include revamping the teacher evaluation system and finding ways to counsel some teachers out of the profession if they do not improve their performance.

"I know there are many things we need to do... but UTLA is a giant and its sheer size adds to the complexity of creating change quicker."

Duffy says he also plans to run for vice president of the California Teachers Association next year and he'd love the opportunity to continue working on local school reform, perhaps as a senior-level employee at LAUSD.

"Imagine what it would be like to have someone who's been inside the union working inside the district," Duffy said.

Plans for the future though are still 10 months away, Duffy stressed.

"I plan to be president of UTLA until midnight, June 30" — the final minute of the final hour of his final term.

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