State Affiliates Go on the Offensive for Teachers and Students
By Kevin Hart and Tim Walker
“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 our students get the education they deserve.” —NEA President Dennis Van Roekel
The elections that filled many governorships and statehouses with extremist 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.
In the aftermath of the recession, the American people have a right to expect that their elected representatives focus their efforts on creating jobs and strengthening economic security for millions of working families across the country. While many lawmakers have made this a priority, too, others have taken cues from Gov. Walker and Ohio Gov. John Kasich to push bills that protect and reward corporations and the special interests that elected them—at the expense of public schools and working families.
That’s why NEA committed not only to fighting back, but also to shoring up the Association’s capacity to fend off future attacks. NEA’s leadership made a bold and unprecedented decision last year to make strengthening state affiliates one of its top two priorities.
Although educators, other public employees, and their supporters have achieved some spectacular wins for working families (including a critical victory in Ohio last fall), the campaign to undermine the American worker and school employees continues in 2012.
Letting the Voters Decide
In the spring of 2011, workers’ rights took two major hits with the passage of Wisconsin’s “budget repair” bill and Ohio’s Senate Bill 5 (SB 5). As soon as these 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.
Wisconsin was soon engulfed by outrage, channeled into petition drives, and protests that continue to this day. One year into Gov. Walker’s tenure, more than 1 million Wisconsin voters decided they want him out—and they put it in writing to force a recall election. In January, scores of volunteers, including many educators and other state workers, lugged box after box of petitions, a total of 3,000 pounds, into the Madison offices of the Government Accountability Board.
The number of signatures collected by a coalition of citizens and organizations led by Wisconsin United in just 60 days totaled 1.9 million—or 1 of every 4 eligible voters in the state. The recall election is expected to take place in the late spring.
The recall ballot will also include the lieutenant governor and four Republican state senators, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. In a first round of recall elections last August, two senators were voted out, nearly stripping the GOP of its majority in the Senate. The goal of the upcoming elections will be to win back that majority and take away the rubber stamp the Senate has given to Gov. Walker and his anti-worker policies.
“We are proud of our members and leaders who volunteered their nights and weekends to contribute to the success of this grassroots effort,” said Mary Bell, a Wisconsin teacher and president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. “It’s been amazing to witness the energy and excitement coming from many individuals who have never been politically active before, but who want to take action to help reclaim Wisconsin.”
Recalling Gov. John Kasich and his allies in the Ohio legislature wasn’t an option under state law, so Ohio’s workers 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.
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 with good reason. Out-of-state corporate leaders, political donors, extremist organizations, and politicians flooded the state with millions of dollars of TV and radio ads holding up SB 5 as the model for the rest of the nation.
On November 8, however, 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.
“Policymakers must respond to the results of this election with fairness for public employees and commitment to safety and service toward our communities. 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, many right-wing legislators 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 workplace safety. Research shows that in states with right-to-work laws, workers make an average of $1,500 less per year, 21 percent more people lack health insurance, and workplace deaths are 51 percent higher.
NEA and its affiliates, however, were able to mobilize working families in New Hampshire and Michigan in 2011 to stop proposed right-to-work bills and to expose the anti-worker agendas behind them.
Take one look at the state motto—“Live Free or Die”—that adorns New Hampshire license plates, and you immediately understand that residents take their freedoms seriously. So when extremist legislators, 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 like the state had never seen. -Record numbers of workers throughout the state rallied in Concord, the state capitol, 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 among the public and Democrat and Republican legislators.
Despite massive public opposition to the right-to-work bill, it passed the Tea Party-dominated New Hampshire legislature before being vetoed by Gov. John Lynch, who has a history of standing up for working families throughout the Granite State. O’Brien’s efforts to override the veto failed at the end of last year, thanks in part to efforts by NEA-New Hampshire (NEA-NH) 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-NH 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. “It is incomprehensible that so much time has been wasted on a bill that has been defeated so many times in the past when there are far more urgent and pressing issues facing middle class families in our state.” (O’Brien has since reintroduced the bill.)
Extremist politicians’ war on working families extended to Michigan in 2011, where a right-to-work bill introduced in the state Senate targeted only public school employees represented by the Michigan Education Association (MEA), an NEA affiliate. It was a slap in the face to public school workers, who have contended with budget cuts, salary freezes and reductions, and fewer resources over the past several years.
“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.”
The bill may not have been designed to create jobs—but it was meant to distract voters from the havoc wreaked on public education in Michigan under Gov. Rick Snyder and his legislative allies. Under Snyder’s leadership, public school funding has been cut by more than $500 million, higher education has become more expensive, and retirees have been saddled with unprecedented tax increases on their pensions—all while corporations enjoy more and larger tax breaks than ever.
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 Democrat and Republican legislators stood together to oppose the bill, and were ultimately able to keep it from coming to the floor for a vote.
Working families in Indiana were less lucky this year, as the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature and Tea Party Gov. Mitch Daniels rammed through a right-to-work law that polls showed was deeply unpopular among Indiana voters.
Daniels signed the law in early February, just hours after the state Senate, which did not allow amendments or debate, approved the bill. Daniels and his state legislative counterparts fast-tracked the legislation so that corporate-sponsored pre-Super Bowl activities in Indianapolis and the February 5, game itself were not marred by news stories of angry everyday workers holding signs, marching, chanting, and staging rallies.
And those rallies were standard fare in Indianapolis throughout January, as average workers turned out in droves to voice their displeasure with the law, which studies showed would suppress the wages of the average Indiana worker by $1,500. Members of the NEA and Indiana State Teachers Association rallied and lobbied legislators on behalf of working families who will be harmed by the law.
Many Hoosiers said they felt duped by Daniels, who had initially opposed making Indiana a right-to-work state and then made it a centerpiece of his legislative program this year. Video surfaced and was viewed of Daniels saying he was “certainly not” interested in pursuing right-to-work.
“We can succeed in Indiana with the laws we have, respecting the rights of labor and fair and free competition for everybody,” Daniels said in the video.
The right-to-work law was seen as a partisan power grab by Daniels and the legislature designed to appease corporate donors and punish those who don’t agree with them. Professor John Russo, NEA Higher Ed member and coordinator of the Labor Studies Program at Youngstown State University in Ohio, said right-to-work laws are typically all about politics—and research definitively shows they don’t create jobs.
“The proponents of ‘right-to-work’ really want to hurt the ability of unions to represent their members and their ability to represent them politically,” he said. “That’s the real issue. And it’s a major one, especially in the current political climate.”
Extremist politicians in North Carolina, following the lead of their colleagues in states like Wisconsin and Arizona, launched a politically motivated attack against union members by passing a law denying members the convenience of having their dues automatically deducted from their paychecks.
Gov. Bev Perdue had vetoed the legislation, which was written to target only members of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). NCAE had been a vocal critic of draconian education budget cuts by the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature—North Carolina now ranks 49th in America in what it spends per pupil. House Speaker Thom Tillis was caught on tape talking about his plans to target NCAE.
In early January, in a middle-of-the-night vote held without warning or public debate, the state Legislature overrode Perdue’s veto and enacted the dues deduction law. The secretive and underhanded way in which the override vote was conducted caused outrage throughout the state.
“They think it will weaken NCAE and that it will make our association nothing,” said Deb Kelly, a teaching assistant from Moore County who is a registered Republican, but was appalled by her party’s handling of the override. “But that’s not going to happen. They have awakened a sleeping giant. We are dealing with the future of our children and we will fight tooth and nail for them.”
NCAE, with support from the NEA, is now fighting the law in court. The association won a temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of the legislation by arguing that it was enacted in violation of the state constitution.
The association says the fight isn’t about political affiliation – it’s about following the law, and doing what is right for North Carolina’s students, schools, and educators. In fact, former State Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, a prominent figure in GOP politics, is acting as lead counsel for NCAE.
“The legislation was enacted in violation of the constitution,” said Orr. “The state constitution does not mention Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. It is what it is and it says what it says.”
Full Funding for Public Schools
NEA believes that, particularly in these troubling economic times, 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—in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and elsewhere—have chosen to gut state 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 for-profit 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 legislature’s deaf ear to the needs of public education, are also looking to the courts to correct funding shortfalls, including Texas, Florida, and California.
Activists in Florida put the pressure on Gov. Rick Scott, whose popularity plummeted in 2011 over his extreme cuts to education funding. Scott eventually vowed to put another $1 billion back into the state’s schools, although unfortunately not enough to undo the damage he inflicted with his previous budgets.
What makes these devastating 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.
The only way to succeed in the new global economy is through investment in public education, our human capital, and infrastructure that connect us. Unfortunately, the U.S. now invests less in education than it did prior to 1980. Restoring these investments and educating lawmakers across the country of the critical bond between the strength of public education and the strength of the economy long-term will be paramount in the coming years.
“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 our students get the education they deserve,” said Dennis Van Roekel.
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 so-called 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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