Behind the union fight

Behind the union fight

March 29th, 2011 in Opinion Times

With Republicans in charge simultaneously of the state House, Senate and the governor's office for the first time in Tennessee's history, Tennesseans might have expected an historical level of lockstep unanimity with regard to a legislative agenda - or what passes for that under this year's general assembly. In fact, however, the Legislature's Republicans are deeply divided between the party's centrist wing and its far-right conservatives and tea party activists, who seemingly use their sanctimonious facade of conservative purity to disguise their slavish servitude to the business lobbyists who pull their strings.

That's readily evident in the emerging battle between the two sides over whether to pare teachers' rights to negotiations with their local school boards, or to eliminate their negotiating rights altogether. Trouble is, there's no telling which side will win, because Gov. Bill Haslam has been so weak in his advocacy of fairness so far.

Haslam and his allies in the House, shepherded by House Speaker Beth Harwell, advocate whittling teachers' rights dramatically, but letting them survive at a basic level. They favor legislation that would strip the teachers' union of the right to negotiate on merit and deferential pay, reassignments and layoffs, leaving them only the right to negotiate on local pay supplements and, presumably, collateral benefits. The bill they favor is now being reviewed by House committees, but it hasn't yet come to an up-or-down floor vote.

That bill is bad enough for teachers. But the arch-conservatives, led by Senate Majority Leader Ron Ramsey and his far-right radicals, want to completely strip the Tennessee Education Association of the right to negotiate on teachers' contracts. The bill they favor overwhelmingly passed in the Senate on March 12 by a 20-12 vote, with all Senate Republicans voting for it. It would simply forbid local school boards from negotiating with any teacher group's professional association.

The bill is being pushed, falsely, as retribution for teachers who have let so-called failing schools continue, never mind that low parental engagement and a host of social ills are the chief reasons that many students fail to learn.

In reality, the only reason the state's Republican leaders want to harm the Tennessee Education Association is simply political. They see the Tennessee Education Association as typically a political ally of Democrats, and they want to kill or undermine the TEA's political power.

There really is no reason to take away teachers' civil rights to negotiate with school boards on their contracts. Teachers are forbidden to strike, and they can't demand binding arbitration. So, in fact, their only real power is moral suasion: They are ultimately required to abide by any contract conditions that school boards demand.

In this context, any fair-minded person would leave the union intact because of its inherent value in giving teachers a say in how they are treated, and thus providing teachers themselves a stronger personal stake in their schools' and students' progress.

Republicans' motive for attempting to kill or weaken the unions, in Tennessee and in a half-a-dozen other states around the country at the moment, derives not from the failure of teachers, but from an agenda pushed nationally by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is backed by a conservative group of business people who simply want to dominate issues relating to labor unions and business taxes.

Hence the GOP-backed statehouse initiatives around the country generally claim they are after unions to promote better schools, when in fact they are carrying water for businesses that want state laws to benefit them. Ramsey makes this deceitful perfectly clear. He claims he wants to destroy the teachers' union because they are, in his words, in the pockets of Democrats, when he himself is in the deep pockets of the coal industry, and other business groups.

Tennesseans should recognize what's at stake. They have a direct interest in teachers who are treated fairly. They shouldn't be deceived by lackeys who support a secret business agenda.