Teacher Luke Amphlett address the crowd with the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel on June 17, 2019
Burbank High School teacher and SAISD board candidate Luke Amphlett is one of the four candidates backed by the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

My father headed a small company in St. Louis that made specialty items out of steel and other metals: tanks, boilers, large-diameter pipes. His was a union shop, and he was not fun to be around during contract negotiations. Still, he told me, he was pro-union with one exception.

If the local steamfitters union elbowed their way in, he said he’d shut down the company and walk away. The reason, he said, was that the Steamfitters were tied to the mob and standing up to the union was known to be hazardous to one’s health. A few years later two St. Louis reporters would win the Pulitzer Prize for detailing the union’s mob ties.

So I learned early on to be pro-union, but not pie-eyed about it. Any study of U.S. history will tell you that unions were a major force – perhaps the major force – in building the nation’s middle class. It was a bloody struggle, with workers battling not only the company’s hired goons, but also the police and other agents of the state. 

Coal miners, auto workers, steel workers – all earned wages that could support a family by organizing, not by relying on the generosity of employers or the backing of politicians. But history also shows that unions can become too powerful, and at times as corrupt as robber barons. 

In his 1986 book The Reckoning, the late David Halberstam masterfully contrasted the rise of the Japanese auto industry with the decline of Detroit as the center of global auto manufacturing might. One of the major factors was summarized in a New York Times review of the book by economist John Kenneth Galbraith: “[A]fter a long and at times ruthless battle against the unions, the American companies surrendered to the United Auto Workers (an organization the author admires) and thereafter, since all companies were paying more or less the same, forgot about labor costs. The union got virtually what it asked.”

In the 1970s I contributed to a study by the Rand Corporation of the decline of newspapers in Boston. As with the auto industry, there were many factors, but one of them was that management had not negotiated as well as the unions. One example: Department stores would hire ad agencies to prepare enticing full-page ads. The agencies would provide finished ads in a form ready to go to press. But under union rules, printers would have to “build” a new version of the ad from scratch, then throw away what they had built and use what the ad agency had sent.

San Antonio saw its own version of union imbalance back in 1988 when the police union “negotiated” an outrageous contract that is still causing issues today. It was a Christmas tree of pay and benefits that included the gold-plated health insurance policy that was at issue in the multi-year negotiations that led to the current contract. I put “negotiated” in quotes because sworn testimony in the federal bribery trial of the union president who led the negotiations showed that city negotiators had at least one hand tied behind their backs.

Early in the negotiations the budget office representative whose job it was to determine the financial costs of union proposals was told she wasn’t needed. An outside lawyer on the city’s negotiating team testified that when the two sides reached an impasse on an item, the union side would call for a recess. When the union negotiators returned they would say the matter had been settled, that they had talked to Mayor Henry Cisneros or Councilman Frank Wing.

It has been widely reported, though he has denied it, that Cisneros was willing to appease the powerful union in order to gain its support in the election to pass a tax for the Alamodome. Wing was living with a police officer whom he would wed the day his term ended.

All these stories make a simple point: Unions are an important force in modern America – as is demonstrated by the shrinking of the nation’s middle class as unions have lost power over the last 40 years – but it is also important that there be capable and strong people on the other side of the negotiating table.

Which brings us to the May 1 election for four seats on the seven-member board of the San Antonio Independent School District. The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support personnel, the teachers union, is strongly backing a slate of candidates seeking to unseat three incumbents and fill an open seat. 

Campaign reports demonstrate that the union backing of the four candidates is far more than an endorsement. The union is all but running the campaign. 

According to campaign finance reports released last week, the union’s four candidates raised a total of less than $5,000 in cash among them. By contrast, the union reports that it has so far spent nearly $35,000 on a coordinated campaign for the slate.

None of that money was in the form of contributions to the candidates. It was spent directly by the union for Facebook and direct-mail ads with common themes but were individualized for the candidates. It included nearly $19,000 to an Austin political consultancy for “Field Direction and Field Organizing services,” in other words, for organizing union volunteers doing weekly phone banking and block walking.

The money comes mostly from $2 monthly contributions from union members. The fund was at $167,000 after the above expenditures, so considerably more may be spent before the May 1 election.

From what I can tell from reading their literature, the candidates are politically progressive people who care about the schools. But it’s safe to say that if they are elected, the union-backed candidates will know who put them there. 

One has especially close ties to the union. Luke Amphlett is a teacher and the union representative at Burbank High School, a job he has said he will quit if elected. That wouldn’t cure a perceived conflict of interest. He is on the executive council of the teachers’ union. He is also married to Alejandra Lopez, who took over last year as the union’s president. 

Lopez had been the union’s representative at Stewart Elementary, which was under threat by the state to be shut down because of failing test scores over the previous five years. Lopez was an outspoken critic of the current board’s 2018 decision to contract with an out-of-state charter school to run the school in an effort to turn it around. She was a named plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the union in a failed attempt to overturn the board’s decision.

The union strongly opposed Superintendent Pedro Martinez on the Stewart Elementary issue and on some other matters in the sweeping changes he has made in the district. As Robert Rivard wrote in a column Sunday, if the union were to elect its slate there is a good reason to believe that they would move to replace Martinez. They would also likely name one of their members board president, replacing Patti Radle, who has provided strong and honest leadership.

Removing a leadership team that has made remarkable progress to turn around a district that had a history of being not only educationally underperforming but also corrupt could be disastrous. A union victory would mean something else as well, something that could have an equally long-term impact. 

The interests of the union are important, but they are not the same as the interests of the district or its students. When the union’s demands are negotiated, they can’t occupy both sides of the negotiating table.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.