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When literal criminals run your union, just go local


“Independent Local Unions” isn’t just an innovative tool to get more out of union dues and membership. For Indianapolis educators, it recently became a necessity.

In June 2018, a 25-year educator and member of the Indianapolis Education Association (IEA) blew the whistle on her local’s president, Rhondalyn Cornett, over mismanagement. The whistleblower, Lora Elliot, sent a complaint to the state-level union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, or ISTA. (ISTA, in turn, is affiliated with the NEA).

Vision statement from the new Indianapolis Teachers Society, which is trying to oust the NEA-affiliated local.

The state union did an investigation, and found that Cornett had used her position to embezzle over $100,000 of the Indianapolis local’s money. In November 2018, Cornett resigned her position as local union president, and the vice-president took over.

So far, so good, right? The ISTA investigated and the bad apple is out of power. Unfortunately, Indianapolis teachers are still unhappy with the state union’s handling of the situation. The main reason is how long it took for them to investigate Cornett. 

Auditors apparently dragged their feet to avoid bad press during school board elections, ultimately releasing a damning audit report on Cornetttwo days after the November 6 vote. The state union’s delay and lack of responsiveness meant Indianapolis teachers felt abandoned.

“We waited for our state office to do something and in our eyes you did nothing for months,” Elliott told Chalkbeat. “That left us no option but to leave the association that we so much loved and tried to protect.”

Elliot and other teachers have decided to leave the IEA and the state union entirely and create a new and completely independent local union: the Indianapolis Teachers Society. The ITS aims to be teacher-focused and more responsive to educator needs. The rival teachers’ union filed a petition with Indiana state in February 2019 to completely remove the Indianapolis Education Association as representative (which would mean no longer being part of the state union and NEA as well).

It is smart for the dissident Indianapolis teachers to form a new and separate union rather than try to take the current local affiliate (with the same leaders) out of the state and national unions. The latter exit route is known as disaffiliation, and in July, the NEA cracked down on local unions trying to exit that way. (Going local is a trend we highlighted in the Wall Street Journal.) New NEA bylaws give national leadership the right to take over local unions, not just state affiliates. And the state union, ISTA, already has a trusteeship over its IEA local.

Indeed, the Indianapolis teachers who want to be independent from the NEA have good company in Nevada, Ohio, and Tennessee. In those places, locals left their state and national unions over similar problems of mismanagement and unresponsiveness. 

The new ITS now wants to be the union for Indianapolis teachers instead of the current IEA local. As such, the rival local’s leaders will need to persuade a majority of the 800 current IEA local members to switch allegiance to ITS. As the new union says on its website, “ITS is grabbing the mic, so WE can bargain for US.” We wish them success in their fight.

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