Few state chief executives have managed to achieve the equal combination of infamy and accolades that have been accorded to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. A moderate Republican in his first term of office, Walker has been the bete noir of the target of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and progressive Democrats everywhere since his successful effort last year to abolish the collective bargaining privileges these public sector unions have long enjoyed in the state — and the far more-lucrative ability to forcibly collect dues from teachers and other public-sector workers they proclaim to represent. His move so angered them that they mounted a recall of Walker this year. Despite the largely unsuccessful effort by the NEA, AFT and others last year to recall the Badger State’s Republican senators who supported Walker’s efforts, they wrongly bet that they could somehow replicate the same conditions that led to voters in Ohio striking down a similar collective bargaining abolition passed by the Buckeye State’s legislature at the behest of Walker’s counterpart, John Kasich.
By tomorrow night, after a campaign that saw their favored candidate lose the race to be the Democrat standardbearer in the recall to the more-moderate Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who lost to Walker two years ago), the NEA, AFT, and its allies will likely lick their wounds. Walker is heading to a likely victory in the recall over Barrett and should retain his full term. For public-sector unions in general, Walker’s victory will almost certainly end up leading fellow Republicans in states such as Florida and Michigan to attempt similar efforts to abolish collective bargaining rules — and even lead Kasich to do the same (albeit without making his earlier mistake of taking away such privileges from police and fire unions, a move Walker sensibly avoided). And particularly for the NEA and AFT, Walker’s possible victory also once again points to the reality that the nation’s two largest teachers unions are no longer the most-dominant players in education policy.
But for centrist Democrat reformers, Walker’s likely victory puts them into a quandary. As much as they publicly decry Walker’s successful collective bargaining ban, they can’t help but realize that the governors they support will have to take up similar moves in order to advance systemic reform. More importantly, the very policies they champion do as much to weaken NEA and AFT influence as those touted by Walker and other cost-cutting and reform-minded Republicans in gubernatorial seats, which puts them in the cross-hairs of the unions and the progressive groups they are co-opting. Centrist Democrats must come to terms with the reality that systemic reform also means using all means to weaken the influence of teachers union affiliates which will fight hard to keep from losing their hard-won power over education policy.
An amazing element of the controversy surrounding Walker’s collective bargaining ban has been the dance centrist Democrat reformers have had to do in order to avoid harsh criticism from both NEA and AFT leaders and their conservative and Republican reform counterparts. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, for example, complained loudly last year about Walker’s efforts. But in the last year, the Obama administration and the Democrat National Committee has done little to back the forces mounting the recall. Other centrist Democrats such as Time columnist and Bellwether Education cofounder Andy Rotherham have taken a pox upon both houses approach, proclaiming equal disdain for Walker’s evisceration of collective bargaining privileges and efforts to recall him.
Why this reticence and rhetorical dancing? Because centrist Democrats find themselves admitting that Walker probably had it right. Collective bargaining may not be the most-important source of influence for NEA and AFT affiliates; their vast campaign war chests (including the $78 million both unions spent during the 2009-2010 election cycle), and the $167 million they spent during the 2010-2011 fiscal year on lobbying and backing fellow-travelers such as the NAACP, are more-important to both unions maintaining influence and shaping education policy than the mostly-symbolic forced bargaining power at the district level. But even symbolism has value for the NEA and AFT, and collective bargaining brings plenty of it. For most veteran teachers, the value of union membership mostly has to do with the perceived ability to shape workplace conditions (even if much of it is determined by state laws instead of at the bargaining table), and that’s what they like about the concept of collective bargaining. Stripping teachers’ union affiliates of that symbolic power is a critical step towards remaking teaching into a true profession. As much as centrist Democrats hate to admit it, the membership losses experienced by the NEA and AFT in Wisconsin proves that Walker’s strategy was the right one. More importantly, Walker’s move to end forced collections of dues from teachers regardless of whether or not they wanted NEA and AFT protection has also stripped the unions of the money that sustains their influence, weakening them just enough for reformers on both sides of the political aisle to finally support reform-minded candidates and advance systemic overhauls for the decade to come.
Certainly Walker’s collective bargaining gambit can be called a weakening of influence by one stab with a rapier. But in many ways, his position and those of his fellow Republicans are effectively no different in substance than what centrist Democrat reformers are doing through a thousand paper cuts. Requiring the use of student performance data in teacher evaluations, for example, weakens the ability of NEA and AFT bosses to protect laggard instructors from being sacked (and also has the effect of reducing the number of rank-and-file members, the source of teachers’ union resources). Abolishing reverse seniority (or last in-first out) layoff policies not only lead to the same result, but end up benefiting younger, more reform-minded teachers in the ranks who, despite making up the majority of teachers in the ranks, are outvoted by Baby Boomer veterans (including retirees who no longer sit in the classroom, but still cast votes in union leadership races). Revamping and abolishing tenure, along with moving away from seniority- and degree-based pay scales to performance pay plans, also weakens NEA and AFT power by eliminating the very compensation packages that the unions defend in order to keep veteran teachers on their side; it also moves teachers away from an industrial model that younger instructors no longer support and was never appropriate for education in the first place.
If centrist Democrats think NEA and AFT affiliates don’t recognize the tactics, then they are sorely mistaken. As seen last month when the NEA’s California affiliate complained about the Obama re-election campaign’s hiring of former Parent Revolution communications lead Linda Serrato (and the move by the state Democratic party to stop Democrats for Education Reform’s state unit from using the word “Democrat” in its name), the two unions are going to go after their rivals within the party as fiercely as they have challenged Walker.
Since its 2009-2010 fiscal year, the NEA and its affiliates alone have poured $516,625 into progressive outfits in order to gain their support, including Progressive Majority (whose leadership include former National Abortion Rights Action League big Gloria Totten, and Service Employees International Union political director Jon Youngdahl), and ProgressNow, whose Ohio affiliate played a key role in passing the voter referendum that overturned Kasich’s collective bargaining ban. One can easily expect the two unions to back primary efforts by progressive elements within the Democratic party who are particularly displeased with their centrist counterparts for being insufficiently Democrat in their eyes.
Meanwhile the two unions are already gearing up to beat back centrist Democrat reformers looking to pass teacher quality overhauls. One can take a look at the strategy undertaken by the two unions in Connecticut this year to beat back Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform effort, which included a series of ad buys by the union, playing upon the sympathies of progressives such as former state legislator Jonathan Pelto (whose relationship with Malloy has long been a shambles), and lining up rank-and-file members to shout down the governor’s messages during town hall meetings. While Malloy was ultimately successful in passing most of his reforms, the NEA and AFT managed to ensure that they are in pilot form, giving them the opportunity to smother the efforts within a few years. The loss also offers the two unions an excuse to back a Democrat rival to Malloy, who won the top office two years ago by a narrow margin. Centrist Democrats reformers looking to advance reform should expect NEA and AFT affiliates there to do the same.
Given these realities, it’s high time centrist Democrats stop talking out of both sides of their proverbial mouths. One such Democrat, Whitney Tilson (a cofounder of DFER), has already admitted in his recent e-mail that “the ed reformer in me will be happy” if Walker wins (even if doesn’t necessarily support such tactics. Others should go further and admit that Walker’s Democrat colleagues may have to support similar efforts to end collective bargaining in order to advance reform. Given that there is nothing constitutionally justified about being able to force governments or other employers to bargain collective, that collective bargaining is an outdated practice that effectively treats all teachers as widgets instead of recognizing the talents of good-to-great teachers, and doesn’t help elevate teaching into a profession with standing similar to that of the medical or accounting fields, abandoning collective bargaining would do more good for education than defending it. More importantly, weakening the influence of NEA and AFT affiliates — including taking away the symbolic power of collective bargaining and the real influence that comes from forcibly collecting dues — is critical to advancing reform.
Scott Walker’s success forces centrist Democrats to admit that their approach is no less geared toward weakening NEA and AFT influence than his own. It’s time for centrist Democrats to stop the dance-around and actually go hard and fast on weakening the unions whose defense of failed practices make it difficult for them to give children schools fit for their futures.