|Bryan Kennedy, president of the American Federation of Teachers' Wisconsin affiliate, is helping to lead the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker. "For us this is a very personal fight," he says.|
Labor unions that represent college instructors are gearing up for several major battles at the polls in the coming months, out of a conviction that they must flex more muscle politically if they are to prevent further assaults on their members' pocketbooks and bargaining power.
Although labor-related issues have long been key points of contention in state and national elections, labor activists in academe are especially geared up for the current election cycle in response to the attacks that fiscally conservative Republican lawmakers mounted against them after the elections of 2010.
The first major contest will be decided next week, when Wisconsin holds a special election to determine whether to replace Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who has gained national attention with his efforts to curtail the collective-bargaining rights of public-college faculty members and other state workers.
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are among the many national advocacy groups—on both the left and the right—that have deployed resources to try influence the outcome of the election, which pits Governor Walker against Tom Barrett, a Democrat who is Milwaukee's mayor. The groups see the election's outcome as a likely harbinger of how voting will go in the fall.
"For us this is a very personal fight," says Bryan L. Kennedy, president of the American Federation of Teachers' Wisconsin affiliate. The affiliate's members at public colleges have lost more collective-bargaining power than most other public employees in the state, as a result of legislation that Governor Walker pushed through last year.
The academic-labor movement also sees high stakes in the November elections, particularly in the presidential race, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee. Its outcome will not only influence the direction of federal education policy but also shape the composition and agenda of the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections, investigates complaints, and plays a central role in determining which instructors at private colleges are eligible to collectively bargain.
The board is considering whether to reverse its 2004 decision to deny collective-bargaining rights to graduate students who work at private institutions, and labor activists have been urging it to reach a decision before a potential Romney victory in the November elections leaves the board without a majority of Democratic appointees.
Voters in several states may also be deciding referenda this fall that would affect faculty unions. Those include a proposed amendment to Michigan's Constitution that would nullify a state law denying graduate students at public universities the right to unionize, a California measure that would increase taxes to avoid further cuts to the state's public colleges, and a separate proposal in California that would limit how unions raise money for political contributions.
Anger in Madison
For now, the unions' focus is on Wisconsin. The Wisconsin AFT is operating 12 of the recall campaign's 20 offices around the state, and academic-labor unions in other states have also sent members and staff to Wisconsin to assist the campaign.
Among the distant unions that are helping the recall effort, the United Faculty of Florida, which represents faculty members at that state's public colleges, has dispatched two of its organizers to Wisconsin.
"What is happening in that state is of national significance," says the Florida union's president, Tom Auxter, a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida. The recall election, he says, will help determine what politicians "can get away with" in dealing with faculty unions.
Governor Walker of Wisconsin provoked a backlash by organized labor by pushing through a measure known as Act 10, which greatly reduced the collective-bargaining rights of most state employees. The bill, which passed last year, stripped the faculty and academic-staff unions in the University of Wisconsin system of the collective-bargaining rights they had won just two years earlier. Governor Walker says the legislation was necessary to balance the state's budget and put its economy on the right track.
Among the new law's provisions was a requirement that most of the public-employee unions that retained their collective-bargaining rights, including those representing employees of the state's technical colleges, win recertification every year. To do so, the unions would need to persuade at least 51 percent of the workers they wish to represent to vote to be part of them.
The recertification requirement, which took effect for each union after the contract it had in place expired, was struck down in federal court in March. In that ruling, which is being appealed, Judge William M. Conley of the U.S. District Court in Madison held that the requirement violated the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause because certain unions, like those representing police and firefighters, had been exempted from compliance.
Just two technical colleges' faculty unions were required to hold recertification elections in the year the provision remained in effect, and both were able to win recertification easily.
The unions representing faculty members in the University of Wisconsin system have had much less success than those at technical colleges in trying to retain some say over their members' working conditions. Although they had hoped to continue to negotiate with administrators by holding nonbinding "meet and confer" talks in lieu of collective bargaining, campus chancellors have, for the most part, refused to hold discussions with them, says Mr. Kennedy of the Wisconsin AFT.
As a result of such developments, he says, "our faculty and academic staff folks are probably some of the most aggressive in working to oust Walker."
Mr. Barrett has pledged that, if elected, he will call a special session of the Wisconsin Legislature and ask it to repeal Act 10 and restore the collective-bargaining rights that it took away from public employees.
Also facing possible recall in next week's election are Wisconsin's lieutenant governor, who is a Republican, and three Republican members of the state's Senate, which is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. According to most recent polls of Wisconsin voters, Mr. Walker, who defeated Mr. Barrett by five percentage points in the state's 2010 gubernatorial race, has a similar lead going into the recall election. The polls show that voters appear to be fairly rigidly following their party affiliation.
Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, a National Education Association affiliate that represents faculty members at half of the state's 16 technical colleges, says her union has been telling members they need to go to the polls because the recall election's results will be determined by voter turnout.
'Pretty Fed Up'
Among faculty unions in other states, those in California are campaigning in favor of a ballot measure proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, that would increase the state's sales tax and raise taxes on the state's biggest earners to close a projected budget deficit of $15.7-billion. If the measure is not passed, the governor said this month, the state will need to reduce appropriations for the University of California and California State University systems by $250-million each, and also cut $300-million in spending on the state's community colleges.
"People are pretty fed up with the way things are operating and want to make everyone pay their fair share," says Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty members and other instructional employees of the California State University system. Her union's members, she says, "want people who have had big advantages over the past decade to pony up."
The California Faculty Association is campaigning against a separate ballot measure put forward as the "Stop Special Interest Money Now Act." The measure, which would prohibit both corporations and unions from using money deducted from their members' paychecks to finance political contributions, is described by its supporters as a way to help reduce special interests' power over state government and give more power to voters. But unions say it is a deceptive effort to put them at a disadvantage because it would ban only payroll-deducted political contributions, which are essential to financing unions' political efforts but account for little of corporate spending on elections.
In Michigan, a coalition of unions is seeking to get on the ballot a proposed amendment to the state's Constitution that says no existing or future state legislation could curtail collective-bargaining agreements or prevent public or private employees from forming unions. If approved, the amendment would effectively nullify a recently passed measure that denies graduate students at public universities the right to unionize.
In Ohio, where voters last fall blocked an effort by lawmakers to limit the collective-bargaining rights of public employees and exclude most public-college professors from union representation, union leaders are hoping to keep their political momentum going.
The fight to repeal the Ohio measure, known as Senate Bill 5, "mobilized a lot of people" in faculty unions, which historically have not been as politically active as other unions in the public sector, says John C. Green, a professor of political science at the University of Akron and director of the university's Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics.
He predicts that union members' anger over Senate Bill 5 may even help President Obama and Ohio's Democratic candidates for Congressional seats. "Faculty union leaders are telling their members: If you didn't like SB 5, then you won't like a Republican in the White House or Republicans controlling the United States Senate," he says.
Ohio's faculty unions are also advocating a proposal that seeks to restructure the political process to discourage attacks on organized labor down the road. The measure, which has not yet been placed on the ballot, would amend the state's Constitution to transfer responsibility for drawing the boundaries of political districts for state elections from elected state officials to a new, independent citizens' commission.
Advocates of the measure say an independent commission would be less likely than elected officials to gerrymander electoral districts to favor one party or the other, with the result being a reduction of the political polarization that has characterized the state's elections in recent years.
The process now used to draw districts "is leading to extreme politicians on both sides of the aisle getting elected," says Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio affiliate of the American Association of University Professors. "Until we change that process, we are going to continually be up against legislation like SB 5."