NASHVILLE -- Union groups rallied Wednesday in support of the Tennessee Education Association, with one leader calling Senate Republican efforts to abolish collective bargaining by teachers and outlaw political contributions by unions a "direct attack on freedom."
From 150 to 200 members of the statewide teachers union and other supporters thronged Legislative Plaza. Though smaller, the scene resembled protests in Wisconsin, where an estimated 25,000 people are protesting a similar proposal to end collective bargaining for public workers.
"We finally have a new [Republican] majority in the Tennessee state legislature, and their first order of business has been to launch an attack on what they see as the biggest threat to our state: Unions that represent Tennessee's teachers, firefighters, policemen and other hard-working people who live and work here," said Mary Mancini of Tennessee Citizen Action, which describes itself as a progressive consumer advocacy group.
She said Republicans would better serve the state by focusing on creating high-paying jobs.
Republicans are pushing a raft of bills attacking the 52,000-member TEA, including one that would end mandatory collective bargaining with school boards. A 1978 law says school boards must negotiate with teachers unions in school districts where a majority of educators have organized.
Teachers are the only public-employee group with mandatory collective bargaining rights in Tennessee, although some unions have agreements with local government entities.
Former House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada, of College Grove sponsored many of the anti-union bills. He said Wednesday that unions are not helping education.
"Unions hurt those who work," he said. "They're a level of bureaucracy between myself and my management. I don't want a union negotiating for me or interfering for me. I want to interface directly with my management."
Chattanooga firefighter Rusty Rymer, secretary-treasurer of the Chattanooga Firefighters Association, drew laughs earlier Wednesday when he told fellow union members, "I'm going to take a risk and say I'm also a Republican."
He said some Republicans want to take choice and freedoms away from public employees, calling it "hypocritical."
"While citizens in the Middle East protest for freedom, our own legislators want to ban public employees from being involved in political freedom," he said.
TEA officials call the measures payback for their support of Democrats.
Earlier Wednesday morning, the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 along party lines to take away teachers associations' authority to appoint four members to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System board. Those voting against the bill included Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga.
Under the bill, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, a critic of TEA, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, would choose four educators to sit on the 20-member board that oversees pensions.
"It just opens it up to more representation of all of Tennessee's teachers all across the state," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Delores Gresham, R-Somerville, the bill's sponsor.
Chief TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said Senate Republicans are attacking the group wherever they can.
"We're ready to start talking about education bills and not political bills," Winters said.
Timothy Brinegar of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, a TEA foe which says it has about 5,000 members, argued for changing the law on who gets on the pension board.
"This bill was brought forth because under current law almost half the teachers across the state have been disenfranchised" because they're not in the TEA, Brinegar said.