Teachers Mobilize With Short-, Long-Term Aims in Mind
Besieged by state proposals to eviscerate collective bargaining, eliminate teacher tenure, and make it harder to collect dues, teachers’ unions are fighting back.
Lawsuits supported by local union affiliates have for now blocked anti-union legislation in Alabama and Wisconsin. Unions are drawing on membership networks, e-mail “blasts,” and phone banks to mobilize teachers and connect them to local politicians. Rallies and demonstrations, meanwhile, have kept the issue in the minds of the public.
Most of the action is occurring at the state level, but by providing state and local affiliates with specialized aid, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are playing an important role in supporting the efforts. Both unions have raised or plan to raise dues to help pay for efforts to delay, block, or mitigate the impact of such legislation.
Observers note that the unions’ longer-term strategy, though, hinges on winning in the court of public opinion and being able to capitalize on such sympathy in the 2012 elections.
“With the resources left to them, I would think unions would fight as hard as they can, because this really is a threat to their organizational existence,” said Charles H. Franklin, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has been closely tracking the situation in that state. “Until the treasuries are exhausted, I would assume the unions will put everything they can into creating a Democratic majority in the legislatures.”
The unions have long been closely allied with Democrats, and newly ascendant Republican governors and state legislators are pursuing most of the measures the teachers’ groups oppose.
Conservative lawmakers, some backed by tea-party activists and other right-leaning groups, have largely blamed teachers’ and other public employees’ unions for budget shortfalls. More than a dozen bills seeking to revoke or curb collective bargaining by those employees are making their way through legislatures.
Unions have recently sought to make the case that cooperation with teachers on changes to pay and evaluation will lead to better education policy, but such legislative action has put them in a defensive posture.
“I think the focus on professional issues is really important, and I don’t think the unions have gotten enough credit for it,” said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based consultant who has written about teacher collective bargaining. “But they can’t at the same time roll over and play dead and say everything else they’ve worked for doesn’t matter. It does.”
Ground zero for such legislation remains Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, signed into law on March 11 a measure that, among other actions, curbs the scope of public-employee bargaining.
As far back as February, the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC, began to coordinate a response to the legislation through the regional NEA support network, UniServ.
“UniServ has played a major role in all of this,” said James R. Carlson, the director of the Kettle-Moraine UniServ Council, which organized many of the rallies and protests in Madison, the state capital. “It’s been the center of our world over the last six weeks, not only with contractual matters, but also legal challenges, and organizing efforts.
“When you mobilize both veterans and people new to the profession, you’re infinitely stronger and more effective,” Mr. Carlson continued. “[Gov.] Walker is trying to outlaw us, but the opposite will occur; we’ll become more vital.”
Public-employee unions in the state, including WEAC, have won a reprieve for now. On March 18, a state judge blocked publication of the bill, temporarily preventing it from taking effect. The union supported the lawsuit, which argues that GOP lawmakers violated open-meeting laws when using a procedural tactic to pass the bill.
In the meantime, the UniServ councils also have played a central role in aiding approximately 100 local bargaining units to negotiate contract extensions, thereby locking those contracts in place for several more years. The extensions “provide some stability in what is a very chaotic environment,” said Mary K. Bell, the president of WEAC.
Many of the extensions make benefit concessions similar to those called for in the Walker bill, which required union members to cover more of the cost of their healthcare and pensions, but they do retain other working conditions favored by unions, according to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.
Looming on the horizon are attempts to recall state senators through special elections, something both conservative and liberal forces are organizing.
Campaign-finance laws prevent WEAC or its parent union, the NEA, from contributing to, or organizing volunteers for, an effort to recall eight Republican senators until the elections are actually scheduled. But the unions likely will make use of their political action committees—separate funds to which members voluntarily contribute—if and when such elections come to pass, Mr. Carlson said.
Of the eight GOP senators, three won their 2008 races with less than 52 percent of the vote, and could potentially be in danger in a recall election, according to Mr. Franklin of the University of Wisconsin. Any successes, he said, might be more symbolic than practical, given that the legislation has been approved.
“All this organizing may well strengthen pro-union and Democratic forces in the state,” Mr. Franklin said, “but undoing the legislation is a much harder thing to accomplish and is likely to be a much longer-term process.”
Tactics to lessen the blow of anti-bargaining proposals are on view even in those states in which a rightward tilt in the Capitol makes it likely that such proposals will pass in some form.
With multiple pieces of legislation moving through the Statehouse in Nashville, the Tennessee Education Association has made strategic decisions about which fires to fight. So far it hasn’t condemned a bill, supported by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, to extend the time for teachers to earn tenure from three years to five, despite concerns about the proposal.
“I have to give the governor credit; he’s stayed out of some of these divisive issues about bargaining,” said Jerry Winters, the tea’s director of government relations. “We owe him some cooperation in trying to move his agenda.”
Instead, the union has been pushing lawmakers to soften a bill to do away with teacher bargaining, and those results seem to be paying off. A House panel in Tennessee recently crafted a compromise measure to maintain collective bargaining, but remove policy factors such as teacher evaluations from negotiations. Mr. Winters attributed the accord partly to good working relationships with some moderate Republicans who supported the compromise.
Gov. Haslam and Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, a Republican, have endorsed the proposal, but it is not clear whether Senate Republicans will agree to the compromise.
In Alabama, the state NEA affiliate has been fighting back against a measure, signed into law by outgoing Gov. Bob Riley in December, that prevents associations from collecting dues for political activities through automatic payroll deductions. Though teachers don’t have bargaining rights in Alabama, the 105,000-member Alabama Education Association is an influential interest groups in the state.
The AEA contends that the law was written expressly to hobble its activities, by defining “political activity” so broadly as to apply to nearly any kind of internal communication or member polling. It sued to block the law, arguing that it impinges on the union’s First Amendment free-speech rights. In a victory last week, a state judge sided with the union, temporarily suspending the law’s implementation.
An appeal is likely, but the AEA has not waited for the matter to crank through the judicial system. Since the bill’s passage, the union has hired some 300 part-time recruiters to persuade individual teachers to have dues deducted automatically from their bank accounts, according to Susan E. Kennedy, the funding and revenue manager for the AEA. So far, the union has signed up 83 percent of current and retired members.
“I think we’re going to take some losses early, but I think in terms of destroying the organization, that’s not going to happen,” Ms. Kennedy said. “Our members are dedicated, educated, professional women for the most part—and I just don’t expect that one legislative cycle is going to be able to undo what these incredible members have done.”
Although most of the union mobilizing has taken place at the state level, the two national teachers’ unions have played an important part in supporting that work.
“It is our strength that we have numbers,” Ms. Bell of WEAC said. “The NEA family has been remarkably helpful as our union really changes and amps up to address the concerns of our members.”
The 3.2-million member NEA has offered in-house legal counsel to its state affiliates, sent additional staff members to states as requested, and helped organize volunteers to man phone banks and even serve hot meals to protesters. And since Gov. Walker’s plan passed in Wisconsin, more than 70,000 NEA members have been in touch by phone with their lawmakers, according to Karen M. White, the political director for the NEA.
AFT officials have also been busy. In what was billed as the first-ever e-mail blast to the entire 1.5 million membership, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, encouraged members to sign the union’s “We Are One” solidarity pledge.
Engaging in rallies, sit-ins, and other forms of protest that state unions have organized is costly, and both national unions have also drawn from “crisis funds” specially set up to keep members informed of legislative proposals viewed as threats.
Unlike PAC money, those funds come out of members’ dues and can be sent to state and local affiliates as needed, regardless of size or population.
Last July, AFT representatives approved a dues increase of 55 cents per full member per month beginning in September 2010—and an additional 55 cents per month beginning in September 2011. The increases were partly put toward the union’s Solidarity Fund, which supports efforts to combat anti-union legislation.
The NEA’s Ballot Initiatives/Legislative Crisis Fund, established in 2000, is currently paid for with about $10 annually out of each full teacher’s annual national dues, currently $166. That amount could soon increase substantially. The NEA’s executive committee and board of directors recently signed off on a proposal to levy an additional $10 annually per member to increase the size of the crisis fund. The proposal will be put to the union’s Representative Assembly in July, Ms. White said.
Additional aid would be welcome, according to state affiliate officials.
Attacking unions “is a national movement,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which is dealing with a newly enacted law that would phase out teacher tenure in the state.
While the national unions have provided assistance, Mr. Pudlow said, “they can only go so far as to how much they can help, when there are brush fires in just about every state.”
Effect on Reform Efforts
All the activism displays the unions’ organizing muscle and political acumen, but it also comes at a time when some unions have attempted to better articulate their role in helping improve aspects of teaching and learning as well.
For some, the two sets of issues—bread-and-butter bargaining rights and upgrades to the teaching profession—are not easily extricated from one another.
What’s at stake “is not just 20th-century collective bargaining rights, it’s fighting for professional voice,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the president of the St. Paul, Minn.,teachers’ union, an affiliate of both the NEA and the AFT. “More and more of us are using our collective bargaining rights to push for professional ideas bubbling up from the classroom.”
In recent weeks, senior Obama administration officials have made similar arguments. In concert with the two national unions, the administration last month brought together 150 superintendents and their local union leaders to discuss ways of using bargaining to advance reform proposals. (“Unions, School Leaders Vow to Collaborate, But Action Uncertain,” Feb. 23, 2011.)
The professional-issues subtext is especially relevant, observers say, for the AFT, whose affiliates have signed several well-publicized contracts overhauling teacher evaluations and pay. The union has also put millions of dollars into an Innovation Fund to help local affiliates adopt such ideas.
For Ms. Weingarten, who has staked her union’s future in large part on the reform possibilities of collective bargaining, the legislative attacks are doubly offensive.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy going on from the right wing, and even some of the so-called reformers,” she said. “They talk about how important teachers are, and in the same breath fiercely oppose any attempts for them to have the tools and conditions to do their jobs.”
AFT officials underscored that the union is still moving forward with its professional-issues priorities. In the midst of all the action, the union has supported the introduction of a bill in Connecticut to codify its recently unveiled ideas for tying teacher evaluations to due process procedures.
For critics, though, such actions are secondary. The extent of union pushback to the legislative proposals, they say, reflects the lengths to which unions will go to protect rights won over the past 40 years.
“They’re worried,” said Mike Antonucci, a prominent teachers’-union watchdog. “They’re fighting this in every state, instead of building a firewall around Wisconsin.”