In his mid-20s, A.J. Duffy seemed unlikely to accomplish anything: Despite a comfortable upbringing, he couldn’t even read.
But Duffy painstakingly reshaped himself and became, of all things, a teacher — one determined to help underdogs like he had been. He then became a union leader for much the same reason, combining a combative outer shell with an underlying desire to bring people together around the common good of learning.
A.J. Duffy died July 3 at age 75, after a three-year battle with cancer, at his home in West Los Angeles.
It was easy to mistake Duffy’s style for his substance: he dressed like a 1930s gangster and could be bombastic — both elements were somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
“Duffy was progressive,” said Joshua Pechthalt, who was union vice president under Duffy and later became president of the California Federation of Teachers. “He believed in an active union with a broad social agenda and helped carry that out. He was a bit cocky, but at a time when that struck a responsive chord with teachers, because they had taken it on the chin for so long.”
Duffy was elected president of United Teachers Los Angeles in 2005 partly because he had an outsider, firebrand mojo that appealed to frustrated colleagues — he bragged about how he chased out 12 unpopular principals as a union activist. Some observers thought that this pugnacious special education teacher would prove an uncontrollable wildman or a prototypical union thug or a cartoonish, overmatched Lilliputian.
But Duffy proved surprisingly strategic and introspective — and was determined to turn the union more firmly in the direction of social activism, accepting, for example, a smaller raise in one contract in exchange for smaller classes. That push for contract terms that would benefit students as well as teachers has become a mantra of United Teachers Los Angeles.
“We believed school reform is a bread-and-butter issue,” Duffy said in a recent interview. “That was our battle. I think time will bear us out.”
His years as union president coincided with the evolution of charter school supporters into the major force opposing union political dominance. Duffy’s political team misfired in several board elections, losing, for a time, a sympathetic school board majority.
The union leadership also stumbled in deciding to support the bid of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to take control over Los Angeles Unified from the elected Board of Education. Union members voted against Duffy’s deal with the mayor, so Duffy had to switch sides. Villaraigosa’s bid ultimately failed in the courts.
The union also scored victories — outmaneuvering a school board majority that wanted to turn over many newly constructed campuses to charter operators. Duffy’s union responded by helping schools develop competing plans for these schools — and parents sided with the teachers in nonbinding popular votes. In the end, few of the newly constructed campuses moved over to charter control.
Duffy was especially proud of internal reforms designed to give district schools — and especially their teachers — more independence. Teachers at newly created “pilot schools” accepted a thinner, streamlined contract with fewer detailed job protections in exchange for what was supposed to be a true collaboration with administrators.
“I envisioned a new form of relationship between teachers and management,” he said recently. “Local control is the key to everything. The school district has to stop being command and control and has to become help and support. There has to be strong oversight, but it has to be evenhanded across the board.”
After he left office, Duffy tried to organize a pro-union charter school. The project didn’t pan out for Duffy and it enraged some union loyalists, but it was consistent with his belief that people from different camps could work together on behalf of students.
Alistair James Duffy was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 31, 1944, as Randy Sidman, the son of an insurance company owner whose top clients included local mobsters, said Duffy’s wife, Carol.
His parents did not want Randy stigmatized by an apparent but undiagnosed learning disability, but the result was that their son navigated through school hiding his illiteracy. As a young adult, he became a street-corner heroin addict, as he put it.
In his 20s, he faced the problem his own way: kicking his habit, obtaining a history book and digesting one word at a time, until, months later, he could understand every one. History remained his passion.
He later showed a similar doggedness in becoming a talented public speaker — studying the video and audio of influential leaders, including two he despised: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
He rechristened himself A.J. Duffy after moving to Philadelphia for several years to denote a new, more purposeful life. He was nearly 30 by the time he earned a junior college degree in marketing management from a New York City community college.
By this time, he’d helped organize and worked in a daycare center for lower-income families in Philadelphia, a role he replicated in Venice, Calif., starting in the early 1970s.
Not long after earning that first degree he began at L.A. Unified as a special education assistant and substitute teacher. In 1978, he earned a bachelor’s of science in community organizing from Antioch College, followed a few years later by teaching credentials in general education, social studies and special education — which certified him to work with students with disabilities.
He didn’t earn tenure protections until 1986, according to school district records, but by then he already was a veteran campus union leader.
Around that time, he started chatting up the attractive receptionist in his doctor’s office. Carol Marie Vargas was not impressed by this stout, loud-mouthed, 5-foot-3 character “in short shorts and a T-shirt that said: ‘I don’t do Mondays.’”
Five years later, she finally agreed to go out with him. Six months later they were married.
It was her idea that he exchange his Venice beach grunge look for the natty gangster-homage attire. Duffy, an organized hoarder, would eventually accumulate 80 pairs of two-toned shoes, some of which perfectly matched his two-toned PT Cruiser.
At Palms Middle School, he both taught and served as dean of schools, a position elected by fellow teachers. He unseated UTLA President John Perez to win the top job and served the maximum of two three-year terms.
A later teachers union president, Warren Fletcher, called Duffy “half union boss and half performance artist.”
“No one ever enjoyed the job of UTLA president as much as he did,” Fletcher said. “I definitely didn’t always agree with him, but I always liked him.”
Duffy is survived by his wife, Carol; stepdaughters Aimee Oswald and Sabrina Castagnino; stepson Julien Stranger; and three grandchildren.