The battle over workers’ rights in Wisconsin was the first to capture national attention, but it won’t be the last. Gov. Scott Walker may be the poster child for right-wing overreach, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers in every corner of the country from trying to blame public employees – especially educators – for the economic problems that plague their states.
Conservative governors have been parroting the mantra of “We’re Broke” as they push extreme measures the majority of voters didn’t ask for and do not support. When Gov. Walker decided to dismantle collective bargaining for teachers and strip them of their voice in discussions around class sizes, school funding, vouchers, and other education policies, he claimed it was to save the state’s budget. But hundreds of thousands of educators, parents and students have helped dismantle that lie.
It wasn’t about the money – because Wisconsin educators agreed to all of Walker’s demands around health benefits and pension contributions. It was about power. It was about crushing unions, the voice of the middle class. And Americans understand that.
In a recent New York Times/CBS poll, Americans opposed the attacks on collective bargaining for public workers by 60 to 33 percent. Only the very richest Americans thought it was a good idea. Walker’s public approval in Wisconsin has also taken a major beating and yet he has vowed not to compromise. Nationwide support for workers’ rights hasn’t prevented governors in states such as Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Florida from gunning for collective bargaining.
For many conservative lawmakers the voices of educators – calling for smaller class sizes or increased funding to classrooms – have become too formidable, too much of an obstacle to a conservative agenda that fiercely promotes endless tax cuts for the wealthy.
“These are actions more fitting for comic book arch-villains,” said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel. “A new crop of state leaders have launched blistering attacks on working families disguised as budget and education reforms, and many have sought to strip workers’ rights to have a voice through their union.”
In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would prohibit collective bargaining by K-12 and university educators, and also abolish salary schedules in favor of merit pay. The bill was narrowly approved by the Ohio Senate last week and now waits consideration by the House.
In Indiana, bills would strip educators of most collective bargaining rights, eliminate dues deductions and increase voucher and charter schools programs.
“I’m terrified at what will happen to me and my colleagues if these bills are passed,” teacher Nikki Roberts said. “They prevent the people with the first-hand knowledge about what’s going on in our school buildings – our educators – from providing input about our students learning environment.”
In Tennessee, the governor’s bill wipes away discretionary bargaining with its declaration: “no local board of education shall negotiate with a professional employees’ organization or teachers’ union concerning the terms or conditions of professional service,” while additional measures would extend teacher probation to 10 years and also remove teachers from the state pension board and other education committees.
And, in Idaho, the battle with State Superintendent Tom Luna also goes beyond his attacks on collective bargaining and his push for new pay-for-test-scores. It’s also about enormous class sizes, teacher layoffs, and his plan to replace teachers in classrooms with laptop computers and online courses.
Anti-union bills are likely to dominate the new legislative session in Florida, including measures to prohibit dues deduction for any union, as well as prohibit the use of dues for political activity unless there is written authorization from each member. Governor Rick Scott recently voiced his displeasure with the state’s constitutional protection of collective bargaining.
“It’d be great to be able to change it,” Scott told the St. Petersburg Times last week. “If you didn’t have collective bargaining, would it be better for the state? Absolutely.”
Educators across the country have been in out in force opposing these bills, mobilizing at statehouse rallies across the country. More than 80,000 people rallied in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this month, plus tens of thousands at the “Rally to Save the Middle Class” in Columbus, Ohio. One thousand workers stood in the snow in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and many more will beat the drum this week at the “Death to the Middle Class,” Mardi Gras-style funeral procession in Indiana.
Support for educators on the firing line has extended across the country into states where the right to organize was not under any immediate threat – at least not yet.
“Any state could be next,” warns Janet Yakopatz, a teacher in Oregon, one of the more than 36,000 supporters who have signed Education Votes national online petition for workers’ rights. ”If we are not willing to stand up for and with others across state borders, who will stand up for ‘me’ when the time comes?”