The combative leader of United Teachers Los Angeles steps down as president after his maximum two terms as president. Thursday was his last day.
The union chief spoke with KPCC before he took his office pictures down.
Before he led UTLA, A.J. Duffy spent two decades as a counselor and teacher. He remembers the first day. "I walked into a classroom that had had six subs prior to me. That the students ruled the class. Every table and every chair was broken in some way, there was graffiti on the walls. Every book was ripped or written in."
His principal gave him six months to turn that classroom around. "I think if my background had been anything but a street kid from Brooklyn," says Duffy, "I probably would have failed."
A principal once told him, “The kids know you’re tough, but they also know you care about them.”
A.J. Duffy tapped into that tough demeanor after United Teachers Los Angeles members elected him. "We stand for taking our rightful place as equal partners in educational decision-making," says Duffy. "We stand for equitable and fair compensation for teachers and health and human service professionals and we stand for building a powerful union that rests on the vitality and activity of all of our members."
He delivered on some of his promises – notably an 8.5 percent pay increase to the union’s 45,000 members.
He fell short on others, says UCLA education researcher John Rogers. "I think he leaves a weakened union, not necessarily because what he did or didn’t do but because the environment facing teachers and teachers unions today is so corrosive."
Duffy mobilized UTLA to wage battle on two fronts: opposing the growth of largely non-union charter schools, and challenging a school board majority that endorsed the education policies of L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his allies.
Duffy admits that UTLA didn’t have the professional staff and elections war chest to win the war. "I work with the human and monetary resources I have. We have an incredible arcane dues structure. We get one-and-a-half percent of new teachers' salaries. So without increases we can’t grow."
But he can savor some victories. "School reform, I was the one that, along with a couple of other people in the district, brought the pilot schools here," says Duffy. "I negotiated all three contracts."
Those achievements pale in comparison to what the opponents were able to do: approve dozens of new charter schools, reconstitute a handful of the district’s lowest-performing schools and create a program that has, for two years, put out for bid the administration of dozens of campuses. Observers say Duffy could have been more effective if he’d collaborated with the district and its allies on these reforms.
He says an empathy gap between many voters and public school teachers didn’t help his union’s cause. "You start with, oh, cushy job, you know, six-hour day, and now test scores are going down, well what’s going on with those teachers? And the community doesn’t understand, it’s not the teachers, it’s the establishment that doesn’t provide the proper training, the proper resource, the proper guidance."
Duffy says the teachers union, the school district and the news media may all share blame for failing to publicize all that teachers do.
For that and other reasons, a lot of people will remember A.J. Duffy as the union president out of central casting. "I guess my style, my bombacity, as people say, the way I dress with two-tone shoes, and what I guess what would have been described in the '30s as very snappy dressing, is probably out of style here, but I make it work."
His future’s a bit uncertain. He lost an election for a statewide union post, so he’s looking for an education-related job. Duffy says he’ll definitely miss the attention that comes with leading the second-largest teachers union in the country.