Federal

Union Rights Issue Driving Wis. Recall Elections

By Sean Cavanagh — August 08, 2011 5 min read
Sen. Dave Hansen, a Green Bay, Wis., Democrat, leans in to kiss his wife, Jane, during a victory party on July 19. Sen. Hansen survived a recall election that gave voters the most direct opportunity yet to react to a Republican-backed law that stripped most public workers of their collective bargaining rights. Eight other recall elections were scheduled for either Aug. 9 or Aug. 16, with Democrats hoping to wrest control of the state Senate from Republicans.

In Wisconsin and Ohio, battles over the collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public workers have been debated in legislative chambers, and in the streets. Now those fights are playing out on the campaign trail.

Wisconsin this month is hosting eight recall elections of lawmakers who are being challenged in large part based on whether they supported or opposed a controversial new law that limits collective bargaining. In Ohio, opponents of a similar law were successful in gathering enough signatures to place an item to repeal the measure on the ballot in November.

Those fights are just two of the most prominent examples of the political aftershocks being felt in states that made sweeping and sharply contested changes in education policy earlier this year. Opponents of those policies are pursuing different strategies to try to do away with them, or prevent them from taking effect. In some cases, partisans on either side are looking to exact political retribution on elected officials who supported those laws, or stood in their way.

Vitriolic Debate

Perhaps no state has seen as much sustained political upheaval this year as Wisconsin, the site of a vitriolic debate over Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to restrict teachers’ and most other public workers’ collective bargaining powers, set mandatory contributions for pensions and benefits, and limit pay raises over time. When that measure was unveiled in February, it provoked massive protests by teachers and other workers, which continued until it was approved by the GOP-led legislature and signed into law by Gov. Walker, a Republican, in March. The governor and the legislature further inflamed teachers through adoption of a budget that made major cuts in K-12 funding.

Opponents of those policies launched petition drives and succeeded in arranging recall elections of six Republican state senators. Supporters of the governor’s agenda, in turn, were able to set in motion recall elections targeting three Democrats.

If Democrats gain a net of three seats in the nine elections, they will wrest control of the state Senate, where Republicans currently have a 19-14 majority—giving the Democrats considerably more power to shape policy. Eight of the recall elections were set for either Aug. 9 or Aug. 16. One race was decided July 19, when Democratic state Sen. Dave Hansen, the incumbent, defeated Republican David VanderLeest.

While candidates from both parties agree that the furor over the collective bargaining law is a defining issue in their races, they have very different views of its effect on the state, and the public’s perception of the measure

Sandy Pasch, the Democratic challenger to Republican Sen. Alberta Darling for her Milwaukee-area seat on Aug. 9, said state residents objected not only to the bargaining law, but also to the manner in which the GOP pushed it through the legislature.

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“It’s really hurting a long, proud tradition in our state of people coming together,” Ms. Pasch said in an interview. “There’s such a level of dissatisfaction that we can’t work together.”

Jonathan Steitz, a Republican candidate for Senate District 22, along the Illinois border, sees the issue differently. Like Gov. Walker and many GOP lawmakers, he believes the collective bargaining changes will lower school districts’ costs by allowing them to negotiate favorable agreements with unions. His opponent in the Aug. 16 race, incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Wirch, opposed the bargaining legislation.

In the past, “you didn’t have a fair negotiation,” Mr. Steitz said. “We had to lower the cost of government and the cost of doing business.”

Neither Sen. Wirch nor Sen. Darling returned calls by deadline.

Clashes Nationwide

Around the country, other new education-related state policies face legal and political challenges.

In Florida, teachers and other public employees are suing to stop a new law that requires them to contribute to their pensions. In Indiana, opponents of a new voucher law are suing to block that measure. And in Idaho, opponents of three new laws, which weaken collective bargaining provisions for teachers and change how they are paid and evaluated, succeeded this year in having them put on the ballot for potential repeal in November 2012.

Like Gov. Walker, Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, has argued that a bill he signed into law in March, which restricts collective bargaining, will save taxpayers money. But the measure drew furious objections from teachers’ unions and other groups, which collected more than 900,000 valid signatures to have a referendum on repeal placed on the Nov. 8 ballot.

We Are Ohio, a Columbus-based advocacy group that favors repeal, had about 10,000 volunteers working to collect signatures, and it expects a similarly broad effort in the run-up to November, said Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for the organization.

“It’s hard for anyone to go very far without running into a teacher, a firefighter, a nurse, a police officer” who will talk about why they don’t support the law, she said.

The Ohio Education Association, a 128,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association, has contributed $5 million to support the group’s campaign, money raised through a dues assessment on its members, said spokeswoman Michele Prater.

Gov. Kasich’s administration has estimated that the law will save local governments, including school districts, more than $1 billion, preserve jobs, and lead to school improvement—all messages that the governor will convey in the months ahead, said spokesman Rob Nichols. An advocacy group called Building a Better Ohio backs the governor’s position, putting forward documents on a website, such as a “spin vs. truth” backgrounder on the law, and making other outreach efforts.

The Ohio collective bargaining measure cannot take effect until after the November referendum.

“He’ll be very visible,” Mr. Nichols said of Gov. Kasich’s message of support for the law. “We’ll talk about Senate Bill 5 wherever we go.” So far, “one side has done all of the talking about this,” he added. “Every day that the law doesn’t go into effect is one that hurts local governments.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 10, 2011 edition of Education Week as Collective Bargaining Clash Driving Wis. Recall Elections

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