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State Affiliate Defense

By Kevin Hart and Tim Walker

Future educators might rightly look at the current U.S. political landscape and experience some trepidation about their chosen profession. But they should know that NEA and its state affiliates are continuing an all-out effort to halt or reverse legislation that imperils public education, its practitioners, and other middle-class workers.

The elections that filled many governorships and statehouses with extremist 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 their elected representatives to focus on creating jobs and strengthening economic security for the middle class. While many lawmakers have focused on these priorities, too many others have taken their cues from Gov. Walker and Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich, pushing 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 continues unabated 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 SB 5, which, like the Wisconsin legislation, stripped the collective bargaining rights of public employees. 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 in outrage, channeled into petition drives and protests that continue to this day. One year into Gov. Walker’s tenure, more than
1 million voters decided they wanted 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, a total of 3,000 pounds of petitions, 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 one of every four
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 state senators, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. In a first round of recall elections last August, two senators were voted out. The goal of the upcoming elections will be 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. 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 formed “We Are Ohio,” a citizen-driven, community-based, bipartisan coalition to stop SB 5. NEA members played a critical role in the success of “We Are Ohio.”

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, and right-wing 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 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 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 such as 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 Democratic and Republican legislators.

Despite massive public opposition to the right-to-work bill, it passed the New Hampshire legislature before being vetoed by Gov. John Lynch, who has a history of standing up for working families in the Granite State. 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 legislators to cross party lines and oppose the bill. (O’Brien has since reintroduced 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. “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.”

Extremist politicans’ war on working families extended in 2011 to Michigan, 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. It was a blatant 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. MEA 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 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, including Texas, Florida, and California, frustrated at their legislature’s 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. He bowed to the pressure and eventually vowed to put another $1 billion back into the state’s schools.

What makes these deep 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.

The only way to succeed in the new global economy is through investment in public education, our human capital, and the 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 on the critical bond between the strength of public education and the strength of the economy in the long term will be paramount in the coming years.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel had this to say concerning the dynamic between citizens and their elected officials. “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.”

Education Votes

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

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