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Poll dispute leads to lock-out

United States. Union leaders at loggerheads over election anomalies. Stephen Phillips reports

Teachers' leaders in the United States met in Chicago yesterday in a bid to settle an election dispute in which two women both claim to be president of the nation's third-largest teachers' union.

The former leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, Deborah Lynch, changed the locks at the union's headquarters earlier this month to stop her rival Marilyn Stewart from taking over.

Officials had declared Ms Stewart's 566-vote victory on June 11 as void due to "significant ballot discrepancies and evidence of fraud".

The anomalies included 600 missing ballots, 185 votes from teachers recorded as absent on polling day and 29 signatures that did not match other records.

Officials ordered a re-run of the poll in September.

Ms Stewart's backers say her victory was legitimate. They have pointed out that the panel which invalidated the first poll contained many of Ms Lynch's supporters. Ms Stewart is now suing Ms Lynch in an attempt to gain control of the union. She claims her rival's occupation is illegal and called the lock-out a "hostage standoff".

Her spokeswoman Rosemaria Genova said last week that there was "no basis for a new election" and that the next poll would be in 2007, when Ms Stewart's term would expire.

Ms Lynch said the panel which annulled the vote contained a mixture of appointees from both sides and that it had responded to several unsolicited complaints from teachers about the election. She also denied that calling the election into question was the result of sour grapes.

"If you lose fair and square that's one thing, but if you lose under a cloud of irregularities that's another," she said. "The missing ballots alone are greater than the margin of victory."

Ms Lynch said changing the locks at the union's headquarters was a "precaution" after one of Ms Stewart's officials had "invaded" the CTU's offices and distributed dismissal notices to staff with "relish".

"The status quo should remain until the dispute is resolved," she added.

A spokesman for the CTU's parent body, the American Federation of Teachers, said the election result should stand and that Ms Lynch should step down unless its own investigation, due to conclude early next month, uncovered evidence of foul play.

At a hearing convened by the federation, teachers' union presidents from New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore discussed whether the Chicago union had sufficient grounds to overturn the election result and whether it had the authority to call for a re-run of the poll.

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