State Battles--The Fight for Our Rights
Displays of solidarity across the country remind state lawmakers: Educators are not the enemy.
By Cynthia McCabe and Tim Walker
It’s been a scary proposition for public school educators to turn on the local news in most states during the past year. From Nevada to New Hampshire, state lawmakers launched an all-out assault on the rights of public workers, and in many places targeted educators with particular enmity. A seemingly ceaseless stream of legislation promised to degrade student learning conditions and trample the rights of educators.
There were potentially devastating setbacks as lawmakers citing budget crises (which in some cases were shown to be inflated) targeted the rights of workers to deduct their union dues from their paychecks, pushed merit pay schemes without collaborating with educators, attacked teacher tenure plans, and came after the fundamental right of educators to organize and bargain their working conditions, compensation, and benefits. That so many attacks cropped up in individual states was anything but coincidence. Funded by such billionaire businessmen as the Koch brothers, the anti-worker efforts were a coordinated campaign to weaken the middle class in favor of big business interests. And it is certainly no coincidence that some of the nastiest fights were picked with middle-class workers in what will be battleground states in the 2012 presidential election.
But amidst the major blows came victories. Citizens rose up for public education and the American worker. Hundreds of thousands in Idaho, Ohio, and Wisconsin signed petitions to recall reckless legislators or put their damaging legislation to a public vote. Rallies brought thousands to state capitols in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Michigan, and beyond. Educators came together and joined with their colleagues in public sector unions, in some cases hunkering down for days in capitol buildings, all with a single, unified message: We will stand strong.
The Assault on Public Workers Doesn’t End
Jeff Condon, a teacher from Adrian, Michigan, has one question for his elected state representatives after watching what’s unfolded in the state capitol this year: “Why are teachers the enemy?” he wonders.
Across the state, his colleagues are likely asking the same question, as they face a slew of proposed legislation from this year-round legislature that is hostile to educators, bad for public school students, and generally stomps on workers’ rights. Everything from school funding to tenure to collective bargaining is being targeted by lawmakers more concerned about their corporate backers than what’s best for Michigan students.
The state’s Republican-led House and Senate have voted to lower business taxes while cutting education funding and raising taxes for senior citizens and the working poor. In the House, they pushed to reconsider an amendment to a bill that passed with bipartisan support to protect public school teachers’ pay increases when no contract is in place. And a four-bill House package purporting to overhaul tenure actually dismantles collective bargaining.
As in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker backed anti-worker legislation, Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder is helping drive efforts in his own state. Snyder, a former venture capitalist who financed his campaign with his own millions, consistently touts the state’s difficult economy as motivation for the attacks on workers.
“This is no longer about good public policy,” says Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters. “It’s clear that the mountain of accurate data about public employee compensation—both through academic research and public opinion polling—doesn’t matter to the proponents of these bills. It’s clear this isn’t about solving budget problems or creating jobs. It’s all about political payback.”
Down to the Recall
When Governor Scott Walker signed into law his notorious “budget repair bill” to strip most public employees of their collective bargaining rights in March, he and his allies in the Wisconsin legislature may have won a battle—but educators and other workers were already preparing for the next. The bill’s passage did nothing to dampen the determination and political activity that put Wisconsin in the national spotlight as the epicenter of the fight for workers’ rights.
“Even when we were protesting in Madison back in February,” recalls Jim Niemeier, a retired teacher from Waupun, “we knew that, if the bill passed, it wasn’t over. We were moving forward no matter what.”
Efforts shifted to two new fronts: legal action and recall elections. Despite some early victories in circuit court, activists were dealt a setback in June when the Wisconsin State Supreme Court ruled that the law could take effect. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and other labor groups responded by filing a suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the bill.
Meanwhile, educators were tirelessly working to ensure that six Republican state senators who supported Gov. Walker faced voter anger over the budget bill in recall elections. In addition to controlling the Wisconsin House and governor’s office, Republicans currently enjoy a 19-14 advantage in the state Senate. If recall efforts result in the ouster of three of the six state senators, Democrats will gain control.
Activists had only 60 days to get the required number of signatures to force the recall elections. Activists like Jim Niemeier canvassed neighborhoods, collected signatures, and phone-banked to educate residents about the so-called budget repair bill and the recall process. Niemeier spent two weeks, eight hours a day, outside his local post office on his way to collecting 500 signatures to help bring his senator, Randy Hopper, back before the voters.
The efforts of Niemeier and others paid off—all six GOP Senators faced recall elections in this month. (As of press time, the results weren’t in. For the latest updates, see EducationVotes.org.)
The elections, says WEAC President Mary Bell, are energizing Wisconsinites and pro-worker rights efforts across the country.
“It shows just how serious they are about standing up for the values our state was built upon.”
A Signature Achievement
Idaho public education supporters notched a stunning achievement this spring when they collected enough signatures to force a November 2012 repeal vote on a series of laws passed earlier this year to silence educators and allow students’ learning conditions to decay. They needed 142,296 to put the measures before voters. They got more than 215,000.
“We did not just barely make our goal; we surpassed it by more than 50 percent,” says Mike Lanza, chairman of Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform and co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together. “We have sent a powerful message: Idaho’s parents and educators will not be ignored.”
Spearheading the effort, parents and educators collected the signatures needed to put before voters three harmful education laws—part of the “Luna plan,” so named for State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Luna. The measures slashed nearly all collective bargaining rights for educators, mandated merit pay, sought to replace teachers with laptop computers (see page 19 for more), and threatened schools’ ability to maintain reasonable class sizes.
The Voters Will Have Their Say
It was a simultaneously proud and infuriating moment as Ohio Education Association staffer Pam Assenheimer entered the name of Ohio teacher Jody Scaife as the key 104,000th signature on a statewide petition to overturn a law that damaged workers’ rights and public education in their state.
With Scaife’s signature, the Ohio Education Association met its contribution goal for the “We Are Ohio” effort to collect 231,000 signatures statewide. With the signature requirement met, the unpopular and dangerous S.B. 5, which targets workers, their unions and collective bargaining rights, will go before voters on the November ballot.
“It infuriates me to think that the middle class is being targeted,” Assenheimer says. “I do not believe that the budget or state will benefit from the changes in S.B. 5. Ohio’s citizens should have a right to vote on a bill that will result in such dramatic changes.”
The Ohio Education Association led a broad-based coalition of Republicans, Democrats, Independents, labor unions, businesses, pastors, workers, employees, and other supporters collecting signatures to help overturn S.B. 5. Passed by the Ohio legislature in March and signed into law by Gov. John Kasich in April. (Read more coverage of S.B. 5 at EducationVotes.org.)
In protest, educators and other public education supporters canvassed their neighborhoods, family gatherings, bible studies, and children’s sporting events. They partnered with the local fire department and school bus drivers’ union on petition efforts. They went where the signatures are, sometimes braving thunderstorms and holding six-hour petition drives.
Now, they’re counting down the days until November, when voters will finally get to deliver their verdict on S.B. 5.
It was a bad year for those who campaigned against public education and workers’ rights in Missouri. Just look at how legislation intended to curtail or eradicate the rights of educators and workers fared during the Missouri state legislative session that concluded at the start of the summer.
- A bill making it a criminal misdemeanor to require employees to pay dues or other charges required of labor organization members failed.
- Bills containing damaging provisions on teacher compensation, evaluation, and tenure failed.
- A bill making several harmful changes to the state’s anti-discrimination law failed.
- A bill that would remove employees’ rights to have their dues deducted from their paychecks, or make political contributions failed.
- Bills expanding low-accountability charter schools, including “virtual” charters, failed.
- A joint resolution amending the state’s constitution to curb the right to card-check union votes failed.
The Missouri NEA’s success in defending their state’s students, educators, and public workers came in part from the strong support in the governor’s mansion, says legislative director Otto Fajen. That was especially significant this year because the House and Senate have strong Republican majorities.
“We have a governor who, while not tethered to either base, fundamentally supports public education,” Fajen says of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon. “He has a Department of Labor that looks like labor. He supports workers’ rights.” That support helped Missouri NEA activists stand strong, Fajen says. “We didn’t back down.”
Are you inspired by the success of activists like those in Missouri, Ohio, Idaho, and beyond?
You can make a difference in your own state. Sign up now to get involved in rallies, phone banks, and lobby events on behalf of public education and workers’ rights in your home state at http://www.educationvotes.org/.
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