Last week, students in several Wisconsin school districts were unable to attend school when classes were cancelled due to thousands of striking teachers throughout Madison and surrounding districts. While most teachers have returned to their posts today, protests continue in opposition to Governor Scott Walker’s (R) proposal to reform collective bargaining and pay down Wisconsin’s $4 billion deficit.
As part of a budget repair bill that has stalled in the Senate, education employees would have to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover the cost of their pensions and pay 12 percent of their health insurance premiums. The governor’s proposal would also limit collective bargaining for teachers.
Although most teachers have returned to the classroom, 14 Democratic state legislators remain on the lam in neighboring Illinois in what appears to be a futile game of chicken with Gov. Walker. But the governor has several means at his disposal to try to entice the absent lawmakers to return to Wisconsin. Gov. Walker has suggested that he will begin sending layoff notices to state employees as early as next week if the budget impasse is not overcome.
The firestorm over modest reforms to union power and education employee benefits is spreading to other states that are trying to reform similarly untenable systems.
The Washington Post confirms that Democrats in Indiana have fled the statehouse in an attempt to thwart a bill curtailing collective bargaining power in that state. At the same time, Governor Mitch Daniels (R) has been working on his own agenda for reforming the workforce, pushing to reform teacher tenure.
And in Ohio, protests are underway against a plan to curtail the collective bargaining power of approximately 60,000 state workers and to require public sector employees to pay a portion of their health insurance. Similar demonstrations are taking place in Tennessee.
Back in Wisconsin, Marty Beil, head of the State Employees Union, suggested opposition is “not about the money,” and that the education unions are primarily concerned with the loss of their collective bargaining power. Christian Schneider over at NRO takes exception:
But to say these protests are merely about collective-bargaining rights is to say The Godfather is a movie about Italian food…
Walker has attempted to change that framework, allowing government workers to opt out of paying union dues — which, he has said, he thinks may offset the increased health and pension contributions he’s asking of employees.
“And it is this provision that has the unions most up in arms. They know that, given the option, many of their members would choose not to write out a check for union dues. This, in turn, would strangle their election spending, leaving them scrambling for funds and, consequently, influence.
Schneider is right. Given the option, many teachers would likely opt out of paying exorbitant union dues, particularly if they disagree with the political positions of the unions that are supposed to represent them. An NEA member survey found that half of dues-paying members identified themselves as being more conservative than liberal, but 91 percent of the NEA’s campaign and political contributions went to Democrats or left-leaning causes. Benefactors of NEA donations include the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, Planned Parenthood and SEIU.
According to Mike Antonucci, who closely follows education unions, “NEA members alone make up more than half of union members working for local governments, by far the most unionized segment of the U.S. economy.” He also explains how these unions operate:
A look at teachers union governance and financing will demonstrate how this philanthropic giving occurs. The school district’s payroll office deducts union dues from each teacher’s paycheck as a lump sum. The money is transmitted at regular intervals to the local union affiliate, which keeps its share and transmits the remainder to the state affiliate, which keeps its share and transmits the remainder to the national affiliate. NEA has an affiliate in every state and claims 14,000 locals. NEA received $162 from each member teacher this school year, and $93.50 from each full-time education support staff member. NEA’s budget for 2010 is $355.8 million.
There is certainly a reason the education unions are concerned about Gov. Walker’s plan to curtail their power. But many teachers might be thankful, too, if they were no longer forced to fork over hundreds of dollars annually to support causes with which they don’t necessarily agree.
Ultimately, education employees must remember that they are hired to teach children. And when two-thirds of Wisconsin students cannot read proficiently, the most efficient and valuable way for teachers to be spending their time is in the classroom, not in protest of modest reforms.
Governor Walker’s proposal will ultimately help limit the power of special interests and put the emphasis back on educating children.