The Old School of Power

He has been enormously influential for 34 years, yet Pat Tornillo -- politically astute leader of Dade's teachers' union -- remains a mystery to most

In 1949 Tornillo completed teachers college in New Jersey using his GI Bill. Immediately after graduating he went to work for an advertising firm but loathed it, and in 1953 got a job teaching English in an all-black, inner-city Newark elementary school. "I had always had an innate, deep-down desire to be a teacher," he recalls.

When his two oldest children contracted rheumatic fever, family doctors told him to find a warmer climate -- either in Arizona or Florida -- for the children's health. The Tornillo family arrived in Florida in 1956 and he began teaching at Biscayne Gardens Elementary School in North Miami.

But the conservative Florida legislature did not adequately finance schools. Classrooms throughout the state lacked books, and school buildings had deteriorated badly. (Dade's schools were of a higher quality than those in the rest of the state, but they were still far from great.) Year after year the regional accreditation team that evaluated schools threatened to close underfinanced programs in rural districts. The schools were also segregated, and black students suffered under even poorer conditions.

Yet the world was on the brink of change -- the civil rights movement had begun in the Deep South and young teachers from the Northeast, people like Tornillo, wanted to become a part of it. Like many of his peers in Dade, he joined the Classroom Teachers Association (CTA), but believed it to be "a company union." Principals had a great deal of say over CTA's leadership, and its officers did not negotiate the teachers' contracts. Black teachers had their own, separate union.

Those issues would be important to Tornillo after he moved on to become a counselor at Carol City Junior High. His friends there persuaded him to run for CTA president in 1962. If elected, he promised, he would merge the segregated unions and would establish independence from school district administrators. He won.

The following year he faced a dilemma: The union's executive board wanted to hire him as a full-time executive director, which would compel him to leave the classroom. After deliberating for a time, Tornillo accepted the union job and ended his days as a teacher. "I did it because of the challenge," he recalls. "I thought it needed to be done. I also had confidence enough to know I could always go back [to teaching]."

In November 1963, Pres. John F. Kennedy invited young educators like Tornillo to the White House. He gave them a motivational speech about the importance of their jobs and encouraged them to improve their communities. He was killed shortly after. "His death had a profound impact on me," Tornillo says. "I felt he was the first person I could identify with. I took seriously his admonition, 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.'"

In the mid-Sixties, the region's accreditation committee closed the schools in Duval County. Teachers from all over the state demanded better funding, more books, more school repairs. In 1967 the teachers called on the legislature in groups and persuaded lawmakers to convene a special session on education and to pass the largest-ever increase in the education budget. But Gov. Claude Kirk threatened to veto the measure. Teachers throughout Florida, brimming with confidence following their legislative success, decided to take a radically unprecedented action: They would strike.

But in Miami, Tornillo disagreed. He wanted Kirk to have time to reconsider his threatened veto. And he worried that once teachers in North Florida handed in their resignation letters -- as the teachers had planned -- they'd lose their jobs forever. He voted against the strike, but his constituents voted to support it. So he put aside his own doubts and led the strike, which lasted three weeks. Local teachers gathered several times for rallies at Miami Marine Stadium, and Tornillo was there to boost their spirits and carry their message to the community at large.

The governor allowed the increased school budget to become law without his signature. It was to be the last time the state's teachers would walk out. Their new unity gave them unprecedented prominence. But prominence wasn't enough, for neither the UTD nor any Florida public employee had a legal right to bargain collectively for teachers' salaries and benefits. UTD had been able to negotiate contracts only when administrators had agreed to participate, and in 1973 management refused. Top administration negotiators simply walked away from the table. Tornillo launched a two-part attack.

He assigned former high school teacher Yvonne Burkholz the task of lobbying in Tallahassee for a law giving public employees bargaining rights. He assigned union lawyer Elizabeth du Fresne the job of suing the school board for acting in bad faith by abandoning the contract negotiations. Both efforts ultimately succeeded. "I got my directions in two words: 'Do it,'" Burkholz recalls. UTD pursued the lawsuit all the way to the state supreme court, which eventually ordered the school board to negotiate.

The success on both levels gave all public employees in the state the right to elect a representative to bargain for salaries and working conditions. It was one of Tornillo's greatest achievements, but it came with a compromise. Associated Industries of Florida, the state's powerful business lobby, agreed not to fight the bill only if Tornillo agreed not to oppose a "right to work" provision included in the bill that prevented unions from closing any workplace to nonunion workers.

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