How unions are spinning Seattle's revolving door of leadership

Commentary: When schools and police have problems, the leaders are replaced. But the true problem lies in the influence of unions.
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Commentary: When schools and police have problems, the leaders are replaced. But the true problem lies in the influence of unions.

few weeks ago, Seattleites saw a familiar sequence of photos. Photo number one shows an outgoing leader — in this case Seattle Police Department Chief, John Diaz. 

The person in photo number one looks beat, discouraged and eager to find the exit. He usually says something vague about “spending more time with his family.”

The person in photo number two (in this case, Jim Pugel, now Interim SPD Chief) is always grinning. He or she looks happy and issues promises of a new day to come.

We have seen this sequence before. We’ve seen it for previous outgoing and incoming SPD chiefs. We’ve seen it even more often for the superintendents of the Seattle Public Schools: Olchefske, Manhas, Goodloe-Johnson, Enfield and now, Banda.

We bid farewell — regularly — to the weary and frustrated, but welcome — just as regularly — the new smiling face. Even as we do, some suspect it is only a matter of time before the newest smiling face makes the move from upbeat to beat up. (Jim Pugel may be making that transition in record time, thanks to being taken to the woodshed on several occasions in recent weeks.) 

What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Perhaps the current point of intervention — the office of the superintendent or chief — is the wrong one. If you want a leader to succeed, their power must be commensurate with their responsibility. You can’t hold someone responsible for the success of an organization if you withhold the authority that would enable them to do the job.

Yet, that’s what Seattle is doing. We are changing out the head person, when the problem is deeper and more systemic in nature. 

In both cases — police and schools — a major part of the problem lies in the extensive powers of the respective unions. For the SPD, that is the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild. For the SPS it is the Washington Education Association (WEA) and its affiliate, the Seattle Education Association (SEA). 

I support the unions. They have an important job to do, which is to represent their members and their interests and to see that their members are fairly compensated for the work they do. This is their right and it is right that they do so.

But things go off track in two ways. First, unions like to present themselves — in the case of the WEA and SEA — as champions of children and education. Their slogan is “Strengthening Washington’s Public Schools,” but this is misleading. SEA and WEA are champions of teachers and teachers’ interests — as they should be. They do not serve the interests of school children, their parents or the wider community.

So, let’s be honest about that. Yes, surely individual teachers care deeply about children and education, but that is not what the union is about.

The same is true of the Police Guild. Whatever sweet music the Guild makes about their commitment to public safety or the welfare of Seattle, the Guild’s job is to represent and protect police officers. It is not primarily about the public interest.

The second — and really more significant — way that things go off track is that union powers have gone far beyond negotiating compensation. They now include the management and discipline of teachers and officers themselves. 

You may have noticed that any time officer disciplinary reform is brought up, Police Guild head Rich O’Neill sees it as a bargaining opportunity. The Guild might allow a citizen review panel, but only if there is agreement that individual officers under review not be identified. 

Something similar happens in the school district. No disciplinary action of a teacher can occur without union representation and involvement. Moreover, removing even a grossly ineffective teacher is nearly impossible because of the union contract’s stipulations.

A new bill, SB-2542 (now stuck in committee), would require that, in order for a teacher to be assigned to a new school, both the teacher and the principal of that new school agree to the assignment. Currently, if a teacher has sufficient seniority or a protected status of some nature (such as having a disability) they can be sent to teach at a school whether or not the principal agrees.

Even if the principal knows that this person is a lousy teacher or a troubled person. It’s in the contract.

SB 2542 would change that, which makes sense — or at least it does if principals are to be held responsible for the school’s performance. However, SEA and WEA have described SB 2542 as “an attack on teacher job security, due process and collective bargaining.” Governor Inslee dutifully came out against the bill. 

Wikipedia actually addresses the larger issue of expansive union powers:

“The reality of collective bargaining is that it is essentially a bilateral process, whereas public policymaking is a multilateral process accessible to all taxpayers on equal terms. This conflict raises the possibility that over time, public employee unions could wield an insurmountable advantage in political power when negotiating government wage and personnel policies with public administrators and elected officials, to the detriment of taxpayers and other competing groups and interests in the democratic process.”

This rather dry language (attributed to Rabin and Dodd, State and Local Government Administration) pretty well describes the Seattle situation: “over time public unions could wield an insurmountable advantage in political power.”

The school district and police department leaders keep shuffling through the revolving door with ever-shorter tenures, while the unions stay put, accruing power by contract and longevity.

This is why personnel and administrative matters should not be up to the union, but to the publicly-appointed chief and his administration. If we don’t like the job they do, we can kick out those who appoint them – the mayor and the council. But if officer review and discipline is effectively controlled by the Guild, the public has no point of leverage or even access. 

What is to be done? Let unions negotiate wage and benefit contracts (that is their job), but get them out of the daily supervision, management and discipline of teachers and police officers. (That is not.) 

In the current police negotiations, driven by the DOJ settlement, negotiator Merrick Bob has called a spade a spade. He has said the Police Guild is “dug in” and “resistant.” Early on, the Guild filed suit again to impede the entire court-ordered process. Just another tool in the arsenal.

The Legislature has the power to limit the scope of union contracts and negotiations to compensation and benefits. Might they ever do so? Large scale change is probably unlikely, but piecemeal change – like SB 2542 – might, over time, move things in the right direction and rebalance the current “insurmountable advantage in political power.”

Until those charged to lead the police department and school district have the power and authority to manage their employees and to discipline them when required, we can keep changing the person at the top. We can keep the revolving door spinning — but it is pretty much a charade.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.