Teachers Unions Fight for Status Quo, Disrupt Legislatures Throughout Midwest

Published March 25, 2011

As state governments faced huge deficits, tens of thousands of public employee union members, including teachers, have spent weeks protesting legislation to limit collective bargaining privileges and expand education reforms in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio.

In Wisconsin, upwards of 100,000 people descended upon the capitol in Madison to protest Gov. Scott Walker (R), who signed a budget repair bill restricting collective bargaining and making other program cuts.

In Indiana, 8,000 union members, many of them teachers union members bused in from outside the state, protested a similar collective bargaining reform bill and legislation to expand charter schools, empower parents to transform failing schools, and change the way teachers are hired, evaluated, and paid.

In Ohio, teachers have rallied against Senate Bill 5, which would reduce collective bargaining privileges, overhaul teacher evaluation procedures, and bar teachers unions from negotiating class sizes. The Senate passed SB 5 in February by a 17-16 vote, with six Republicans siding with all 10 Senate Democrats in opposing the bill.

Retired Teacher Reports
Carol Prudhon, a retired Wisconsin public school teacher, went to Madison for a counter-rally on Feb. 19, organized by the Wisconsin Tea Party and its allies to show support for Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to address the state’s looming budget deficit by limiting collective bargaining rights of teachers and other state employees.

The Badger State faces a $137 million budget deficit in the current fiscal year and a $3.6 billion deficit during over the next two years.

Prudhon said what she experienced “was pretty scary.” Although police said union protestors were peaceful, “they were completely surrounding us,” Prudhon said.

Cost Savings Predicted
The unions were protesting Republicans’ plan to restrict collective-bargaining rights to wage increases no higher than the rate of inflation without a voter referendum. Teachers also would be required to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary to their pension plans and double their healthcare contribution to 12 percent.

Walker says Wisconsin can no longer afford such luxuries, noting the union pensions and health insurance are perks few taxpayers who fund those benefits now have.

Nationwide, the comparable employee health-care contribution was 20 percent of pre-tax income, while the average contribution from take-home pay to a retirement plan was 7.5 percent in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Employee Benefits Research Institute, respectively. 

Walker said his reforms would save more than $30 million during the final few months of the fiscal year, and he warned not implementing them would cause 1,500 state employees to face layoffs and “could result in the state being unable to pay for health services to thousands of children and families in Wisconsin’s BadgerCare program,” in a memo to state workers and teachers. 

Indiana, Ohio Face Walkouts
In reworking labor policies to address fiscal crunches, some governors have gone farther than Walker.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) wants to limit coverage of local collective bargaining agreements to wages and wage-related benefits. The Daniels-backed measure passed the Indiana Senate by a 30-19 vote, but House Democrats, like Wisconsin’s Senate Democrats, left the state to prevent votes on labor-related legislation and a handful of education reform bills.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) says he wants to ban collective bargaining outright for 42,000 state workers plus 19,500 college system workers, and he would limit bargaining for others by taking health care and other benefits out of the negotiating process involving contracts with 300,000 union workers, including teachers, police, and firefighters. Walker’s plan exempts police and firefighters.

A handful of Ohio Republican legislators have said they either oppose Kasich’s plan or are on the fence about it. Kasich’s office says if the plan had been in place during Fiscal Year 2010, taxpayers could have saved about $1.3 billion on health insurance and automatic pay increases.

Union Efforts Losing Momentum
Kyle Olson, founder and CEO of the Education Action Group Foundation in Michigan, says the teachers unions’ agenda of unrestricted collective bargaining, ironclad tenure protections, and strict “last-hired, first-fired policies” is outdated.

“I think reality is setting in for the unions,” Olson said. “They have constructed benefit and pay packages for their own staffs that are not sustainable. The public and even some of their members are starting to see the union is acting like it’s 1971, not 2011.”

Olson says the teachers unions have overplayed their hand and have failed to see how profoundly the fiscal landscape has changed in most states. Instead, he says, the unions are relying on desperate intimidation tactics against legislators and businesses that support Republican reforms.

Reform Efforts Spreading
Beyond Wisconsin, Indiana, and Ohio, Olson says, important reforms are underway in states once thought to be impervious to reform.

“Look at Michigan,” Olson said. “I think it’s the sleeper state. The legislature is passing some very serious reforms with rather pathetic opposition from the [Michigan Education Association].

“It’s quite refreshing to see all the bluster from the union be completely ignored,” he added. “In fact, when the union began laying the groundwork for a statewide strike, legislators answered by introducing legislation increasing financial penalties on the union.”

Olson says strikes could have an unintended positive effect.

“Parents and taxpayers could learn a lot, including which teachers are truly committed to educating, preparing, and inspiring the state’s students,” he said.

Jim Waters ([email protected]) is vice president of policy and communications at the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions in Bowling Green, Kentucky.