The teachers’ unions are currently facing threats to their existence due to proposed state legislation seeking to weaken collective bargaining, abolish teacher tenure, and make the collection of dues more difficult. However, the unions are fighting back and have successfully blocked anti-union laws in Alabama and Wisconsin, thanks to lawsuits supported by local union affiliates. To mobilize teachers and connect them with local politicians, unions are using their membership networks, e-mail blasts, and phone banks. Additionally, rallies and demonstrations are being organized to keep the issue in the public’s mind.
While most of the action is happening at the state level, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are playing a crucial role in supporting local and state affiliates by providing specialized aid. Both unions have also increased or plan to increase dues to fund efforts to delay, block, or mitigate the impact of the anti-union legislation.
Observers believe that the unions’ long-term strategy relies on winning over public opinion and capitalizing on the sympathy garnered in the 2012 elections. Several state legislatures are advancing bills aimed at eliminating or restricting collective bargaining, teacher strikes, and union-dues deductions.
Conservative lawmakers, often supported by tea-party activists and right-leaning groups, tend to blame public employees’ unions, including teachers’ unions, for budget shortfalls. As a result, numerous bills aimed at revoking or limiting collective bargaining for these employees are being introduced in state legislatures.
Unions have been emphasizing the importance of cooperating with teachers on pay and evaluation changes to improve education policy. However, these legislative actions have forced them into a defensive position. The unions cannot solely focus on professional issues and neglect or abandon other matters they have fought for. Wisconsin remains the primary battleground for this legislation, with Republican Governor Scott Walker signing a law on March 11 that restricts public-employee bargaining. The Wisconsin Education Association Council, with its 98,000 members, has been coordinating a response to the legislation through the regional NEA support network, UniServ.
UniServ has been instrumental in organizing rallies, protests, legal challenges, and contractual matters related to the legislation. The involvement of both experienced educators and new teachers has made the union stronger and more effective. Despite Governor Walker’s efforts to outlaw the unions, they are determined to become even more vital.
Mr. Franklin expressed that the efforts to organize could potentially strengthen pro-union and Democratic forces in the state. However, he also acknowledged that reversing the legislation will be a much more difficult and longer-term process.
Even in states where there is a rightward shift in the Capitol and it is likely that anti-bargaining proposals will pass in some form, there are tactics being used to mitigate the impact.
The Tennessee Education Association in Nashville has strategically chosen which battles to fight. Despite concerns about a bill supported by Republican Governor Bill Haslam to extend the tenure-earning period for teachers from three years to five, the union has refrained from condemning it. Jerry Winters, the director of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, commended the governor for staying out of controversial bargaining issues and acknowledged the need to cooperate to advance his agenda. Instead, the union has focused on lobbying lawmakers to water down a bill that aims to eliminate teacher bargaining. This approach seems to be yielding results as a compromise measure has been developed, which preserves collective bargaining while excluding certain policy factors, such as teacher evaluations, from negotiations. Winters attributes this progress, in part, to positive working relationships with moderate Republicans who support the compromise. The proposal has received endorsement from Governor Haslam and Speaker of the House Beth Harwell, but it remains uncertain whether Senate Republicans will agree to the compromise.
In Alabama, where teachers do not have bargaining rights, the state affiliate of the NEA has been pushing back against a law signed by outgoing Governor Bob Riley that prohibits associations from collecting dues for political activities through automatic payroll deductions. The Alabama Education Association, with 105,000 members, is a significant interest group in the state. The association claims that the law was specifically designed to hinder its activities by broadly defining "political activity" to encompass any internal communication or member polling. To challenge the law, it filed a lawsuit arguing that it violates the union’s First Amendment free-speech rights. The union achieved a temporary victory when a state judge suspended the implementation of the law. Although an appeal is likely, the AEA did not wait for the judicial process to unfold. Since the passage of the bill, the union has hired approximately 300 part-time recruiters to convince individual teachers to have dues automatically deducted from their bank accounts. According to Susan E. Kennedy, the funding and revenue manager for the AEA, the union has already signed up 83% of current and retired members. Kennedy expressed confidence that while losses may be experienced initially, the organization will not be destroyed. She highlighted the dedication, education, and professionalism of their members, and believes that one legislative cycle will not undo what they have accomplished.
While most of the union mobilization efforts have taken place at the state level, the national teachers’ unions have played a crucial role in supporting this work. Ms. Bell of WEAC emphasized the strength in numbers that the unions possess and commended the NEA family for their assistance in addressing their members’ concerns as the union evolves and grows.
State affiliate officials are expressing that they would appreciate additional aid. According to Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, attacking unions is a nationwide movement. The association is currently facing a new law that would phase out teacher tenure in the state. While national unions have provided assistance, Pudlow mentioned that there are limitations to how much they can help, especially when there are issues arising in multiple states.
The activism by unions demonstrates their organizing skills and political savvy. However, it comes at a time when some unions are also trying to better explain how they contribute to improving teaching and learning. For many, the issues of collective bargaining rights and enhancing the teaching profession are closely intertwined. Mary Cathryn Ricker, President of the St. Paul teachers’ union, emphasized that the fight is not just about bargaining rights but also about advocating for professional voices. She mentioned that more educators are using their collective bargaining power to push for innovative ideas that come from the classroom.
In recent weeks, senior officials in the Obama administration have made similar arguments. In partnership with national unions, the administration brought together superintendents and local union leaders to discuss using bargaining as a means to advance reform proposals. The AFT, in particular, has been focusing on professional issues and has signed contracts that revamp teacher evaluations and pay. The union has also allocated significant funds to an Innovation Fund to support the adoption of such ideas at the local level.
For Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT, who believes in the potential of collective bargaining for reform, the attacks on unions are particularly offensive. She argues that there is hypocrisy from right-wing groups and even some self-proclaimed reformers. They claim to value teachers while fiercely opposing any measures that would provide them with the necessary tools and conditions to do their jobs effectively. Despite the legislative attacks, AFT officials emphasized that the union is still committed to its professional-issues priorities. In Connecticut, for example, they are supporting a bill to solidify their recent proposals for connecting teacher evaluations with due process procedures.
Critics, however, believe that such actions take a backseat to the unions’ primary concern of protecting the rights they have gained over the past four decades. Mike Antonucci, a prominent teachers’ union watchdog, suggests that the union’s extensive resistance to the legislative proposals reflects their fear and their willingness to fight in every state rather than solely focusing on Wisconsin.