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Outgoing teachers union Vice President Camille Zombro has issued an open letter attacking the current union leadership, calling the union out for being on verge of concessions, and announcing the existence of a pressure group that will push for changes at the union.

The extraordinary and personal letter offers a no-holds-barred glimpse inside the turmoil within the San Diego Education Association.

It’s posted on a site called The Breakfast Club Action Group, which is critical of the new direction the San Diego Education Association is taking. It marks the latest twist in the story of a union that recently voted Zombro out and removed its executive director, Craig Leedham. The two are regarded as the architects of the union’s shift toward a hard-line, confrontational stance.

Here are the top five takeaways from the letter:

1: Zombro Suggests the Union Is Close to Concessions

Here’s what she writes:

I am writing to you because our union, and so our public schools, are under attack as never before. For the first time in five years, I believe our union leadership may be on the verge of accepting deep wage and benefit cuts, allowing massive layoffs, or possibly even both — and unless we as union members come together and act NOW, I fear that this possibility will become an inevitability.

If this is true, it would be a huge deal.

The school district has been calling on the SDEA to make concessions on a series of pay raises teachers were promised as part of a 2010 deal with the district. So far, the union hasn’t budged, saying it won’t even talk to the district until the state has passed a budget in the summer.

District officials have said that with the right concessions from all labor unions, they can avoid most, if not all, of the more than 1,600 layoffs that have so far been issued to employees.

The action of the teachers union is also especially poignant, since it is by far the largest employee union in the district. As such, it often leads the way for other, smaller unions to follow suit.

There hasn’t been much overt movement towards a new position from the SDEA since the leadership changes. Publicly, Freeman has continued to say that the union will not negotiate concessions. However, in recent weeks, he has also begun to say that the SDEA wants to work with the district to forge a solution.

Zombro’s replacement, Lindsay Burningham, has also made clear that she hopes to work more closely in union with the district.

2. Zombro Lashes Out at Her Successor

When my presidency ended in 2010, I proudly passed the torch to Bill Freeman, a site Association Rep. who told all of us he believed in (and campaigned on) our model of strong, member-driven unionism. Unfortunately, it is increasingly obvious that Bill is no longer committed to that vision. Rather than lead an aggressive fight to hold the School Board accountable for their unnecessary layoffs, he is now taking dramatic and abrupt steps to systematically dismantle the very foundation of the powerful union we have built: our democracy, our transparent communication with membership, and our tough stance in defending our jobs and our contract.

The SDEA became increasingly hard-line and isolated throughout the tenure of Zombro and her ally, Leedham.

Apart from some subtle hints at reconciliation with the district, however, Freeman hasn’t offered much to suggest publicly that there is the sort of rift at the SDEA that Zombro is alleging. He has appeared in public with Zombro and has continued to say at board meetings that concessions are not the answer to the district’s problems.

3. There’s a ‘Tug-of-War’ Going on at the Union

Zombro writes:

Those of us inside the SDEA building have seen this coming for some time, resulting in a tug-of-war within the office over the fundamental direction of our union. On one side of SDEA’s tug-of-war have been Craig and I and thousands of you, fighting to keep SDEA’s contract closed while saving our valuable coworkers’ jobs. On the other side are Bill, a portion of the SDEA Board and a portion of the SDEA staff who want to “collaborate” with the District, possibly open the contract, resulting in significant salary and benefit concessions in the hopes that the District will reduce layoffs.

Again, this is fascinating because it gives some insight into the decision-making going on within the union.

The organization, which has prided itself on presenting a united front in the face of recent financial storms, is clearly wrestling with the latest round of bad news, according to Zombro’s account.

We’ve seen signs before that there is division within the union’s membership. Earlier this year, two teachers sent us an open letter calling for the SDEA to change its firm position against concessions.

This is the first public recognition that those divisions go all the way up to the top of the union.

4. Zombro Claims She and Leedham Have Been ‘Purged’ From the Union

She writes:

Unfortunately I am writing to you today because our democracy — the open and sometimes raucous debate that defines us — is being threatened as current SDEA leadership shifts the direction of our union while actively working to discredit those who are speaking up against these actions.

Further:

The stark reality is that Bill is driving out the opposition — me, Craig, and anyone else who pushes back. Bill has led the SDEA Board to demand Craig’s resignation after two months of unexplained paid administrative leave, and threw me out of the meeting where the decision was debated. Despite a permanent, legally binding contract (much like the one you and I enjoy), and a perfect performance record, Craig is being forced out with no just cause or progressive discipline, no chance to tell his side of the story, and without ever even being told what, if anything, he had been accused of. That should horrify anyone who believes their contract protects their employment status.

For the last two months, I have also experienced a level of personal harassment and villification that I won’t detail, but that no worker deserves to experience in the workplace or in her union.

To recap: Zombro was voted out of office earlier this year in the union’s elections. Leedham was placed on administrative leave, and the union has been extremely tight-lipped about what, exactly, they claim he has done to warrant his removal.

I’ll be pushing the union for more details on Leedham’s ouster in the coming days, in the light of these accusations from Zombro.

5. A Pressure Group Has Been Formed to Push the SDEA in a Certain Direction

Zombro writes:

So how do we get through this with our union intact? We step up our involvement and we stay involved. I sent this email to just about every teacher in the District I personally know. I know a lot of people… and so do you! Forward this email, tell them to forward it, and follow up with conversations because, as I always say, a flier or an email are only as good as the conversations that go with them.

Link arms with other SDEA members — don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do! In just one example, a group of teachers from several schools across SDUSD have formed the “Breakfast Club” (which SDEA leadership will likely discredit as a “splinter group” or a “divisive force”). They are a passionate and articulate pocket of SDEA members who are working together to push back against layoffs AND concessions — the core of the SDEA agenda — and I will be proud to start getting involved with their efforts as they grow.

So, Zombro appears to be calling on her union brothers and sisters to step away from the SDEA and join this new group that she may be willing to lead.

This could get really interesting.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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