As fights against anti-union legislation spread from Wisconsin to Indiana and Ohio, Tennessee public employee associations threw a noisy rally of their own Wednesday to denounce Republican attacks on their power in this state.
Several dozen sign-waving, chanting demonstrators descended on Legislative Plaza to assail bills to repeal the collective bargaining rights of Tennessee’s teachers and to end payroll deductions for any union’s political arm.
“What I’m asking our legislators to do is to stop attacking teachers. Put your heads together with us and let’s work on some legislation that actually helps education,” said Cynthia Jones, a fifth-grade teacher and former president of the Murfreesboro Education Association.
Other bills outlaw union political contributions and make it a crime to create “a hazardous or offensive condition” by picketing.
“We finally have a new majority in the Tennessee state legislature, and their first order of business has been to launch an attack on what they see as the biggest threat to our state: Unions that represent Tennessee’s teachers, firefighters, policemen and other hard-working people who live and work here,” Tennessee Citizen Action’s Mary Mancini told the rally, which clogged the Plaza’s main hallway.
“Their plan is not only to end a teacher’s right to negotiate, a right which has created good jobs and safe workplaces for decades, but to also take away the voice of hard-working Tennesseans by barring them from participating in the political process. This is a direct attack on freedom.”
Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford, a high school math teacher in Sevier County, said the TEA negotiates for more than wages and benefits.
“We have to bargain for textbooks for every child,” she said. “We have to bargain for material and supplies. We have to bargain for desks and chairs and chalk and markers. All those things are not readily provided because of budget constraints on our school systems. If we didn’t have the opportunity to work together and represent all teachers in the school systems, I’d hate to see what the schools would look like.”
Rep. Glen Casada, R-College Grove, who is sponsoring much of the anti-union legislation, said unions are an outdated burden to businesses and workers alike. He said Republicans are trying “to think outside the box.”
“This is what’s great about America,” he said of the union rally. “You have the right to be wrong.”
“I would contend the unions hurt those who work,” he added. “They’re a level of bureaucracy between myself and my management. I don’t want a union negotiating for me or interfering. I want to interface directly with my management. That’s why so many Americans and Tennesseans aren’t in the union. They realize it’s a hindrance, not a help.”
Just before the rally, the Senate Education Committee — which already has approved ending teachers’ collective bargaining powers — voted 6-3 along party lines to repeal the TEA’s authority to appoint members to the state board governing teacher pensions. Instead, the Republican speakers of the House and Senate would make those appointments.
The committee’s chair — Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville —pointed out that the speakers still would be required under the new law to appoint teachers.
“It just opens it up to more representation of all of Tennessee’s teachers all across the state,” she said.
But TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters called it another political attempt to bust the teachers’ union, a traditional ally of Democrats.
“We’re ready to start talking about education bills and not political bills,” Winters told the committee.