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State Affiliate Defense

By Kevin Hart and Tim Walker

The 2010 elections that filled many governorships and statehouses with right-wing lawmakers produced an unprecedented assault on public education and American workers. It started in January 2011 when Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced legislation that stripped collective bargaining rights for public employees, and it hasn’t let up since.

Educators, other public employees, and their supporters are fighting to roll back these attacks, often successfully. Last fall, activists in Ohio scored a critical victory when voters rejected Gov. John Kasich’s Senate Bill 5 (known as SB 5), which, like the Wisconsin legislation, stripped the collective bargaining rights of public employees. But, despite some successes, the campaign to undermine the American worker and school employees shows no signs of abating in 2012.

NEA and its affiliates continue to oppose this kind of harmful legislation as they urge lawmakers to turn their attention to building quality public schools, creating jobs, and restoring economic security for struggling working families.

Letting the Voters Decide

In Spring 2011, workers’ rights took two major hits with the passage of Wisconsin’s “budget repair” bill and Ohio’s SB 5. As soon as these anti-collective bargaining bills were signed into law by Gov. Walker and Gov. Kasich, respectively, educator activists in both states immediately sent out a loud and resounding message: This is far from over.

One year into Gov. Walker’s tenure, more than 1 million Wisconsin voters decided they want him out. In January, volunteers collected 1.9 million signatures (one out of every four eligible voters in the state)—more than enough to put Walker’s name back on the ballot. The recall election is expected to take place in the late spring.

The recall ballot will also include four Republican state senators, allies of Gov. Walker. The goal of the upcoming elections will be to take away the rubber stamp the Senate has given to Gov. Walker and his anti-worker policies.

In a first round of recall elections last August, two senators were voted out, nearly stripping Republicans of their majority in the Senate.

It is the commitment of activists like Jim Niemeier, a retired educator from Waupun, that has helped drive the recall effort. In March 2011, Niemeier stood outside his local post office, talking to people about Gov. Walker and his disastrous legislation as they walked in and out. He did this for eight hours every day in sometimes bitterly cold weather.

“Even when the [“budget repair”] bill was being debated in early 2011,” recalls Niemeier. “We knew that, if the bill passed, it wasn’t over. We were moving forward no matter what. So, in my mind at least, a recall effort has always been in the cards.”

Recalling Gov. Kasich and his allies in the Ohio legislature wasn’t an option under state law, so Ohio’s workers instead targeted Kasich’s odious anti-collective bargaining law, SB 5—and in overwhelming fashion.

After SB 5 became law in March, activists across the state mounted a successful campaign to gather enough signatures to put the law on a referendum ballot. Voters came together and formed “We are Ohio,” a citizen-driven, community-based, bipartisan coalition to stop SB 5. NEA members played a critical role in “We are Ohio’s” success.

These activists left nothing to chance. Every day, they pounded the pavement, knocked on doors, called voters, showed up at volunteer centers, stuffed packets and enlisted the support of family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

And on November 5, Ohio voters made it clear they wanted to rid the state of the anti-worker law, overturning it by an impressive 61 – 39 margin.

With SB 5 now out of the picture, Ohio Education Association President Patricia Frost-Brooks said she hoped lawmakers would turn their attention to more pressing economic issues.

“Ohio needs and deserves a full-time focus on jobs and the education of students for good jobs and careers.”

The Right-to-Work – For Less

Unfortunately, right-wing legislators in other states have ignored this message and have opened up new fronts in the war on America’s workers. In several states, lawmakers are advancing so-called “right-to-work” bills designed to undermine collective bargaining rights and leave workers without a voice on employment issues ranging from compensation to safety.

When legislators in New Hampshire, under the leadership of House Speaker Bill O’Brien, proposed right-to-work legislation in 2011, the result was an outpouring of protest and political action such as the state had never seen.

Record numbers of workers throughout the state rallied in Concord, the state capital, and flooded their legislators with calls, letters, and emails asking them to oppose the bill. NEA-New Hampshire, with assistance from NEA, worked with a coalition of organizations representing public and private employees throughout the state to build opposition to the bill.

The bill passed the Tea Party-dominated New Hampshire legislature before being vetoed by Gov. John Lynch. Speaker O’Brien’s efforts to override the veto failed at the end of last year, thanks in part to efforts by NEA-New Hampshire and its coalition partners to convince several Republicans to cross party lines and oppose the bill.

“There was nothing ‘right’ at all about this bill for middle-class working families in New Hampshire,” said NEA-New Hampshire President Rhonda Wesolowski, calling the failed override a “bipartisan rebuke” of Speaker O’Brien and outside groups that attempted to force the unwanted bill upon New Hampshire citizens.

The right-wing war on working families extended to Michigan in 2011, where a right-to-work bill introduced in the state Senate targeted only public schools employees represented by the Michigan Education Association (MEA), an NEA affiliate.

“So-called right-to-work efforts—whether they apply only to school employees or to all workers in this state—are the wrong approach to helping Michigan’s economy,” said MEA President Steven Cook. “This is an incredibly divisive issue that will do nothing to create jobs or help students.”

Michigan citizens were outraged by the transparent attack on MEA and its members that the right-to-work bill represented. MEA mobilized its members and supporters of public education throughout the state to contact their legislators and voice opposition to the bill. The association and its members also used media outreach to educate the public about the real intent of the bill, and the consequences of silencing public school employees in the workplace.

Both Democratic and Republican legislators stood together to oppose the bill, and they were ultimately able to keep it from coming to the floor for a vote.

Full Funding for Public Schools

NEA believes that investing in education makes both good fiscal sense and good public policy—because funding targeted to quality public schools will see the greatest return on taxpayer money and will strengthen the entire economy. Unfortunately, too many governors have chosen to gut education budgets, in the process eliminating crucial services, increasing class size, and more often than not transferring public school funds to private entities, such as private schools and voucher programs that have little or no record of success.

These deep budget cuts have been felt across the nation and now educator activists are taking their case not only to lawmakers but also to the courts. In January, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation to “amply fund” public education, delivering a huge victory for the state’s public schools. Activists in other states, frustrated at their legislatures’ deaf ear to the needs of public education, are also looking to the courts to correct funding shortfalls.

Activists in Florida put the pressure on Gov. Rick Scott, whose popularity plummeted in 2011 over his extreme cuts to education funding. Gov. Scott eventually vowed to put another $1 billion back into the state’s schools, although unfortunately not enough to undo the damage done by his previous budgets.

What makes these budget cuts all the more egregious is that not all citizens are being asked to sacrifice. Income inequality, a leading cause of the nation’s current economic troubles, is a major factor. The tax system has become loaded with loopholes and tax giveaways for big corporations and the super rich. When loopholes and tax giveaways prevail, schools and small businesses—the backbone of any community—suffer. When schools and small businesses are imperiled, so is the community.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel weighs in: “Americans must demand that our elected leaders use our tax dollars to help build a solid future for all our children and our nation by providing adequate funding for our public schools and helping all of our students get the education they deserve.”

Education Votes

Thoughtful coverage of state and national races and issues from a pro-public education perspective. Go beyond sound bites—stay informed and get involved.

We don’t need anti-worker legislation in the states—and we sure don’t need it from Washington.

Did you know that Mitt Romney has said he would support a national right-to-work law? That Newt Gingrich publicly sided with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker against teachers and public employees? As devastating as right-to-work legislation can be in any given state, imagine what it would do to the middle class if enacted at the federal level.

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