By Grace Ferrell
An excess of 4,000 protestors filled Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville in opposition to legislative efforts that would eliminate Tennessee teachers’ collective bargaining rights — a smaller version of the unrest in Wisconsin over similar legislation — March 5.
The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest professional organization, mobilized its members and supporters for the rally.
“They came with the goal of being heard by legislators who have passed, or who plan to pass, the bills that seem to attack educators in Tennessee,” said a report by the TEA regarding the rally.
Collective bargaining, which Tennessee teachers are fighting for in the rally, is the right of an employer and a group of employees, such as a union, to discuss and decide upon terms of employment, according to Cornell University Law School.
In a recent interview, Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey explained the differences he saw between Wisconsin’s situation and that in Tennessee. Ramsey pointed out that Tennessee was more fiscally responsible and that the only public employees with the right to bargain collectively in Tennessee are public educators — a fact Ramsey opposes.
“When you take that government job and you are living on taxpayer money, you should not have the right to collectively bargain,” Ramsey said.
More than $7 million in damages has been reported at the Wisconsin state capitol due to the tens of thousands of union members and supporters protesting the legislation that would cut public teachers’ collective bargaining rights and, hopefully, lower the state’s deficit.
All 14 of Wisconsin’s Democratic senators fled to Illinois to avoid being forced to vote on the legislation — effectively preventing the predominately Republican House from reaching a decision on the matter.
State highway patrol officers were dispatched to the homes of the missing senators in hopes of returning them to the capitol and allowing a vote to occur. None were found.
However, the Republican governor and state senators were able to pass the bill with only one Democrat present, March 9. The legislators were able to vote after cutting any language from the bill dealing with spending issues. The standoff between the Republican legislators, the still missing Democratic legislators, and the union protestors and supporters lasted over three weeks.
“State governments perhaps have run out of places to turn in trying to balance their budgets,” said Tom Rosebrough, professor of education and executive dean of the College of Education and Human Studies. “I feel sure the governors think that eliminating bargaining rights will be effective toward their state budgets.”
The risk of using this method to cut costs, Rosebrough said, will be replacing teachers who have become discouraged by government programs, such as No Child Left Behind, and the increasing amount of “baby boomer” teachers who are retiring.
“Teachers live in a particularly fragile culture,” Rosebrough said. “Many teachers see their union as a safety net against unreasonable employment decisions, especially in states like Tennessee where their evaluations are increasingly tied to student test scores.
“They feel blamed for dealing with problems they did not necessarily create. Their benefits, especially pension benefits, are often seen by many teachers as compensating for low pay.”
The issue is complicated, Rosebrough said. Teacher unions have the power of protecting weak educators — frustrating parents and school officials. On the other hand, many quality teachers feel they need the support of a union.
“When I obtain my teaching license, I would consider joining an organization such as the TEA,” said Leandra Morgan, Student Tennessee Education Association president and senior elementary education major. “Having been a part of STEA for a few years, I see the benefits of being a part of a professional organization. It helps me to stay updated on current issues in the world of education and gives me a voice on those issues.”
Many people across the nation have dubbed the legislation to eliminate public teachers’ bargaining rights in states such as Wisconsin and Tennessee as a ploy by Republicans. Vice versa, the protests against the legislation have been seen as an effort of predominately Democratic unions.
“I know that if I do join TEA, or a similar organization, this does not mean that I will immediately adopt all of its principles and its standing on political issues,” Morgan said. “But I will think critically about what is going on and form my own opinions regarding legislation so that I am not blindly advocating policies I do not support and of which I am uninformed.
“Overall, joining organizations such as TEA is a great way to grow professionally and to be the best teacher I can be.”