After decades of corruption Florida teachers seek new union with integrity

In Miami-Dade, the nation’s 4th-largest school district, teachers have grown so tired of their corrupt and entrenched union that most aren’t even members anymore.

Under Florida law, the…

In Miami-Dade, the nation’s 4th-largest school district, teachers have grown so tired of their corrupt and entrenched union that most aren’t even members anymore.

Under Florida law, the United Teachers of Dade (UTD) is at risk of decertification since its membership is below 60%, and a new coalition is already rising to take its place.

The Miami-Dade Education Coalition (MDEC) is jockeying to become the area’s new union – and it promises to make some major changes.

Shawn Beightol, a longtime public educator and spokesperson for the MDEC, told The Lion that UTD is as corrupt as they come.

“Thousands upon thousands of teachers already understand this about UTD, that the elections are rigged, the contract ratifications are rigged,” Beightol explained. “It always turns out the way UTD wants. We don’t have a single opposition person in an elected leadership position. It’s very well, street-level-believed that UTD election process is a joke.

“When MDEC announced its intention to compete, we were very well received.”

Beightol has a long history of trying to reform UTD, going back to when he started teaching and joined the union 31 years ago.

“They fund the orientation for new teachers every year and scare the hell out of new teachers: ‘Bad things are going to happen if you don’t join the union!’”

But the longer he participated in the union, the more questionable behavior he observed.

“I noted that the increase in union dues and health care costs were not matched by commensurate salary improvements,” Beightol said. “I began investigating what was going on.” Around the same time, former UTD president Pat Tornillo was arrested for swindling the union out of millions of dollars.

Beightol unsuccessfully ran for president of UTD twice, before being expelled for “anti-union” behavior.  

“It became evident at some point that nobody would be able to change UTD from within as long as UTD, with American Federation of Teachers’ support, controlled the voting mechanism,” he recalled.  

Additionally, more than half of UTD dues was going to state and national unions – the National Education Association, American Federation for Teachers and Florida Education Association – that did next to nothing for Miami-Dade teachers and students.

And that’s when the Freedom Foundation stepped in.

The think tank proposed replacing these entrenched, agenda-driven unions with local-only ones that focused on local issues. Beightol said Miami-Dade educators were “elated” with the idea, and thus began the MDEC. 

“We will not be politically involved unless they are issues that are directly affecting the classroom and local school conditions and performance,” he said, adding these differences are written in MDEC bylaws. “We’re not going to be sending money to campaigns of legislators and mayors and things like that, like the current teachers’ union, United Teachers of Dade does.”

According to Beightol, UTD bargaining has hurt teachers by compromising on issues such as classroom size, and using amateur teacher representatives rather than lawyers.  

“[MDEC] is not going to make those compromises,” Beightol told The Lion. “When wrongs are committed against employees, employees are exploited, when administrators are going after them for whistleblowing or whatever, we’re going to have lawyers protecting our employees.”

UTD is struggling mightily to maintain its grip on Miami-Dade public schools – and the ensuing battle has gotten dirty, the longtime educator says.

UTD is “saturating teachers over and over again with messages that the Miami-Dade Education Coalition is a fake union, it is just a front for the Freedom Foundation, and that really what the Freedom Foundation is after is the destruction of public education and unionism as a whole,” Beightol explains, of UTD’s tactics in opposing his efforts.

Moreover, UTD’s protestations ignore the fact that Beightol and MDEC’s other leaders are all longtime public educators.  

Freedom Foundation also rebuked UTD’s claims.  

“One hundred percent of our clients are public employees that have been wronged by their union in some manner,” Rusty Brown, director of special projects at the Freedom Foundation, told The Lion. 

“You have to make a distinction between unionization and big corporate labor unions that have become multibillion-dollar corporations who focus the majority of their money on exorbitant salaries for union officers and political agendas that have nothing to do with its members interests.”

Assuming both unions get on the ballot for the upcoming election, which they likely will, all of Miami-Dade’s nearly 25,000 educators will get to vote on whom they want to be represented by.

Beightol hopes the election will be held in April or May, since teachers’ current contracts expire at the end of June.