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Wisconsin delivers message to big labor

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Esther Cepeda
August 11, 2011
— Everyone is busy making inferences about Wisconsin’s recall vote and what it might mean for the 2012 presidential election. But more interesting is what the results say about the public’s opinion of labor unions right now.

Voters at the center of the internationally watched litmus test on the future of organized labor’s grip on the levers of government decided—if not resoundingly—that, no, they would not take power from the party that stood up to the teachers unions.


As a former teacher and the spouse of a current teacher, I disagree with the popular narrative that most Americans demonize teachers and consider them summer-vacationing underachievers who soak the public till regardless of their performance. It’s really their unions that people have negative feelings toward.


After all, nearly everyone can remember a teacher who changed his or her life for the better. But many non-union members still can’t swallow why the representatives of well-educated white-collar workers insisted their troops take over the Wisconsin Capitol for weeks last winter just because they’d been asked to pay near-to-what every other working stiff pays for benefits. If they’re lucky enough to have them, that is.


That dissonance, coupled with the continuing pitiful economic climate, is driving interest in revamping collective bargaining rules—and pension plans—across the country in a variety of sectors. But let’s stick to teaching.


Why must teachers effectively be forced to join a union to teach in public schools? Nineteen states require it and, according to the Public Service Research Foundation, another 31 states offer varying degrees of opt-outs for teachers who don’t want to be part of the union, but they have to either still pay the member dues or adhere to the district’s collective bargaining agreements.


More and more teachers are wondering whether that’s necessary.


The National Center for Education Information, a nonpartisan research organization based in Washington, D.C., recently released its report “Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011.” In it you’ll find evidence of an anti-union mindset coming into its own.


When asked what would strengthen teaching as a profession, 19 percent of a randomly selected national sample of K-12 public school teachers favored getting rid of teacher unions altogether.


Even more illuminating are attitudes toward other reform measures that were once considered anathema because they strike at the very heart of the union status quo. A whopping 59 percent agreed that paying teachers based on job performance would strengthen the teaching profession. Fifty percent said the market should be a factor in determining teacher pay.


Fifty-five percent agreed that a national proficiency exam for entry into teaching—similar to the bar exam for lawyers or the CPA exam for accountants—would improve the teaching profession. And almost 100 percent want individual teachers to have more direct participation in decision-making at the school-building and district level, an opportunity teachers feel their unions deny rank-and-file members.


Those figures are all up from 2005, the last time the report was compiled, and are significantly higher if you separate the views of veteran teachers from those of new teachers who have been analyzing education reform while going through the teacher preparation process and also people coming into education after careers in the private sector. The numbers also jibe with similar teacher surveys reported in the past year.


Across the country, small groups of teachers are in the early stages of organizing themselves to get out from under the thumb of union power. Many parent- and community-led anti-union groups include teachers as outspoken advocates. This can be partly attributed to the education reform movement’s momentum, but it also has to do with teachers being people, too, and regular people aren’t so hot on unions.


A February 2010 Harris poll found that the public had about as little confidence in organized labor as they did in the mainstream media and big business—only a few points above Wall Street and Congress.


More telling, a March 2011 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of adults nationwide felt that labor unions had too much power—15 percentage points higher than those who felt big labor had the right amount of power.


The lasting impact of the Wisconsin recall election boils down to this: Voters said they’re OK with curbing union power. When put to the test, I believe the rest of the country will say much the same.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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