Antagonism toward public unions is exploding.
Organized labor hasn’t had many victories these days. The recall of Wisconsin’s Governor Scott Walker was, at best, a draw. At worst, it was another lost battle wasting precious resources in a war in which labor is financially and organizationally outgunned.
In addition to business interests pushing agendas that are at the very least indifferent to workers, there is a well-heeled anti-union network ranging from the Koch Brothers and Walmart to anti-union fronts, like National Right to Work and the Center for Union Facts. This network actively oppose workers’ rights and unions’ political power. As much as conservatives like to complain about union bosses funneling money to politicians and political causes, the influence of organized labor is waning, due in large part to role of money in American politics.
Once upon a time, unions could counteract business’ money advantage by supplying people to work on political campaigns. Business might have had money, but back then, people mattered almost as much as advertising. American politics runs on money, however you slice it,
Whatever slice you look at, business interests dominate, with an overall advantage over organized labor of about 15-to-1.
Even among PACs – the favored means of delivering funds by labor unions – business has a more than 3-to-1 fundraising advantage. In soft money, the ratio is nearly 17-to-1.
It is this monetary advantage, not to mention the low esteem with which the public regards union labor, that explains the Massachusetts Teachers Association’s deal with the odious Stand for Children, an anti-union organization masquerading as an education policy group: unions. We’ve got a weak hand and there aren’t many cards to play left in the deck. don’t have a lot of cards to play these days.
Last year, Stand for Children brought its show to Massachusetts with a complicated ballot initiative that would all but eliminate the use of seniority in layoffs, and it is here that their next victory–through the ballot initiative or legislation–is imminent. Faced with the prospect of a difficult campaign against the ballot initiative that would be difficult to explain even to people who oppose it, the Massachusetts Teachers Association leadership negotiated with Stand and developed legislation to replace the ballot initiative. If enough legislators agree to back the bill, Stand will drop its ballot initiative.
The biggest differences between the legislative alternative and the ballot initiative are the number of moving parts, the locus of control, and the preservation of collective bargaining rights. As MTA President Paul Toner has said,
the ballot initiative would greatly reduce collective bargaining rights, would weaken due process rights for teachers with Professional Teacher Status and would eviscerate those rights for part-time teachers. It would greatly diminish the voice of teachers, which is essential to the success of our public education system.
In both the initiative and the legislation, seniority would no longer be the only criterion for layoffs; it wouldn’t even be the primary criterion. Layoffs would be based primarily on teachers’ performance as reflected in evaluations and other job performance factors. This is a major concession on the part of the MTA. Seniority, a bedrock issue when it comes to employee rights, could only be a secondary factor or tie-breaker.
The American Federation of Teachers, Massachusetts’ other teachers union, opposes the MTA compromise, and it’s hard to criticize them for their opposition. Stand for Children, a recent arrival in Massachusetts, has come here and effectively purchased a educational policy change. That alone is galling enough. It’s even worse considering the fact that Stand for Children was a member of the task force that revamped teacher evaluation, could have contributed to the process, chose not to, and proceeded to hire signature gatherers to bring a ballot initiative forward. Stand is here to impose their agenda. Massachusetts voters may or not support that agenda, but one thing for sure is that Stand for Children doesn’t care about voters. One hundred percent of its power is financed by .10% of the population (see below),
From a policy perspective, the effect of seniority on student learning is minimal. Ideologically, it sounds sensible: getting rid of “bad” teachers will improve teaching. But those bad teachers have to be replaced. And in communities where educational needs are most dire–cities like Springfield and Boston–there are not enough “good” teachers to replace the “bad” ones. Particularly in our neediest communities, teacher turnover is, by far, a more significant issue, and one unlikely to be positively effected this legislation.
As hard as it is to stomach the MTA’s compromise, it was the right thing to do. Stand for Children’s action in Illinois is instructive. Prior to a state-imposed cap on campaign spending, Stand raised $1 million ($2.8 million) as the next richest lobbying group ($1.8 million). And the funding sources,
Members of the famed billionaire Pritzker family kicked in a total of $250,000 on Dec. 29, two days before the end of the old campaign finance system, which allowed for unlimited contributions to groups like Stand for Children’s PAC.
Ken Griffin, the CEO of the Citadel Group, contributed $500,000 on Dec. 15. Griffin gave hundreds of thousands of dollars last year to Illinois House Republicans and GOP gubernatorial nominee Bill Brady’s campaign. Sam Zell, the owner of Tribune Co., contributed $100,000 on Dec. 20. Members of the Henry Crown family kicked in $400,000. And Paul Finnegan, the co-CEO of Madison Dearborn Partners LLC, contributed $500,00
Prior to this, Stand for Children bought out the top lobbyists in Illinois and bankrolled enough candidates to push through its “grassroots” legislation virtually eliminating the right of Illinois teachers to strike. We know this for a fact. Stand founder Jonah Edelman bragged about it at the Aspen Institute.
The MTA leadership could have chosen to “fight” Stand for Children. But it would have been like the charge of the light brigade. We can’t match their money, and it would have been an uphill battle to convince the public, which tends not to care if doesn’t affect them, to care about seniority not counting when it comes to layoffs. Approval for public-sector unions is pretty low, and union concerns are easily demagogued. In a time when many workers across the Commonwealth are unemployed or taking pay cuts, it’s hard to make them care about whether seniority is used as a factor in firing teachers. Barry Bluestone, former, sees hope in the MTA’s compromise, hope that it can start to ”counter the antiunion animus spreading from state to state”:
In this age of enormous income equality and the unparalleled power of big business, we desperately need organized labor to preserve its strength to stand up for the 99 percent – not just the unions’ own members. Prevailing against the proposed legislation will undermine the much bigger fight on our hands. Building coalitions with parents, students and other community organizations will help restore the alliance of progressive forces in the Commonwealth and help reconstitute popular support for public unions. Without such coalitions, we all face much darker days ahead.
Bluestone would seem to be supported by the words of Rep. Barney Frank: “In seeking to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the public-sector unions and their allies on the progressive wing of the Democratic Party made a big mistake. My side picked a fight they shouldn’t have picked. People need to be more strategic about the fights they pick.”
If Bluestone and Frank are correct, and I think they are, then Paul Toner and the MTA leadership are headed in the right direction. We don’t have to like their compromise. They probably don’t like having to make it.
(School’s out, baby!)