Union Interests Under Attack In Statehouses

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Beginning this summer, the Indiana State Teachers' Association will no longer have the ability to bargain with school districts for the right to collect fees from nonunion members.

The "fair share" clauses that allow the teachers' union to charge nonmembers put about half a million dollars into its coffers each year. The fees are only a small part of a $13 million budget, but the union has fought to preserve them many times in court.

Indiana's G.O.P.-controlled legislature thought it was time to end the practice, however. Last month, lawmakers overturned a veto by Gov. Evan Bayh, a Democrat, and enacted the measure repealing the fair-share provisions.

In state after state, the story is the same: Republican governors and lawmakers are bombarding the teachers' unions who have long used their million-dollar warchests and grassroots organizations to hold Republicans at bay. Now that they have won control, conservative majorities are going after fair-share agreements, collective-bargaining rights, teacher tenure, and other laws that strike at the heart of teachers' unions' interests.

Not all of the proposals are new. But this year, they have appeared with a force and frequency that suggests their supporters are not going to back down.

'We Feel Besieged'

"We certainly do feel besieged here," said Annette Palutis, the president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which faces legislative measures that would, among other things, penalize teachers for striking.

"Every time you turn around, there's something new," she added.

Last month, a newsletter for the National Education Association leadership said the recent activity in the states proves a point: Conservative lawmakers and other state officials are out to shatter the unions' influence.

"Right-wing lawmakers are proposing legislation to weaken our voice on the job," the union asserted, adding that most of the measures are designed to remove obstacles to "market-oriented reforms" like school vouchers and privatization.

Lawmakers in places like Michigan--where the once-invincible state teachers' union has faced several defeats at the hands of a Republican Governor and legislature--disagree. (See related story.)

Sen. Dick Posthumus, the Republican majority leader in the Michigan Senate, said the state's N.E.A. affiliate should have seen the writing on the wall.

The union "has played hardball politically for the past six to eight years," Mr. Posthumus said. "I think there's been a radicalization of the union. That's even reflected nationally."

Some of the bills moving in state legislatures do not target teachers' unions specifically, but rather deal with education issues in general, union officials say. However, many of the measures would have a profound impact on teacher organizations.

In several states, governors and legislators have moved to abolish or amend teacher-tenure laws--a move the unions claim would strip their due-process rights. (See Education Week, March 1, 1995.)

Other state have passed, or are considering, charter-school and voucher legislation, which state unions traditionally have fought. (See Education Week, May 10, 1995.)

State education codes, many of which teachers had a hand in writing, have also been targeted for drastic changes.

Merit Pay and Pensions

In addition to those kind of proposals, in recent months:

  • The Pennsylvania Senate passed a bill that would prohibit unions from continuing to collect fair-share fees. Gov. Tom Ridge and legislators are also discussing elimination of some collective-bargaining rights.
  • Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois and G.O.P. legislators blitzed the legislature with some 300 education bills, many of them aimed at reining in the Chicago Teachers' Union.
  • In Wisconsin, Gov. Tommy Thompson wants to give school boards the authority to implement merit-pay plans without the agreement of teachers' unions.
  • The District of Columbia's city council proposed stripping unions of their influence over the evaluations of teachers and administrators.

Taking Their Share

Fair-share laws could be next on the chopping block in a few states. In Indiana, legislators and nonunion teachers had fought for more than a decade to end the forced deduction of dues. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1994.)

But it was not until the balance tipped in the Republicans' favor in both houses of the legislature that they succeeded in changing the law, which gave unions room to bargain for the clauses one district at a time. About 75 of the state's 295 school systems have the agreements, which the unions say are justified because nonmembers get pay raises and other benefits negotiated by the unions.

The clauses "caused disharmony and unrest within local school districts, when the time, money, and energy should have been spent educating the children," said Jane Ping, a retired kindergarten teacher who is the president of the Indiana Professional Educators. The nonunion group lobbied for many years to have fair share thrown out.

Garrett Harbron, the president of Indiana's 42,000-member N.E.A. affiliate, said the measure succeeded this time because of strong Republican interest and a healthy party majority. The new law will not apply to contracts that have already been written.

"What we're seeing here now is not your traditional moderate Republican," Mr. Harbron added. "These folks are extreme."

Following Suit

The Pennsylvania unions may face a similar, uphill battle to preserve fair share.

The Senate has already passed a bill that would repeal the practice, also known as agency shop. And the teachers' union does not know whether the House will follow suit, said Ms. Palutis of the 120,000-member union, also an N.E.A. affiliate.

The G.O.P.-controlled legislature has also discussed plans to take away teacher sabbaticals and make it easier to layoff school employees, Ms. Palutis added.

But "this isn't just an attack on teachers," Ms. Palutis said. She pointed out that Governor Ridge has put forward charter-school and voucher proposals that would affect the entire education system in ways the unions claim would be detrimental.

In Illinois, Governor Edgar and his supporters have taken a similar route. This year, they are backing a variety of bills aimed at the Chicago district and its 31,000-member teachers' union.

Under a plan backed by the Governor, an appointed "superboard" would have broad authority to set the district's budget and approve union contracts. (See Education Week, May 3, 1995.)

Moreover, the plan would place limits on the ability of the union-an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers-to strike and to bargain collectively. It would also streamline the process for firing teachers.

'Muscle Flexing'?

Chicago union leaders said that and other proposals have come fast and furious-with scant opportunity for them to offer input.

"We're not sure which are being put out as a display of muscleflexing, and which they're serious about," Jackie Gallagher, a spokeswoman for the Chicago union, said. "Democracy just kind of flew out the window here."

Mark Gordon, a spokesman for James (Pate) Philip, the president of the Illinois Senate, said legislators are serious about turning the system around. He said the union often stand in the way of reform.

"The Chicago public schools are pretty well known as union-controlled schools, where teaching is secondary to protecting the political power base," Mr. Gordon said.

Ms. Gallagher, however, fears some of the more radical proposals would undo the teachers' efforts to improve their schools.

"They want to kill this union," she added. "They really want to see us on our knees."

Vol. 14, Issue 34, Pages 1, 16-17

Published in Print: May 17, 1995, as Union Interests Under Attack In Statehouses
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