Republicans on the state Senate Education Committee voted Wednesday to strip the Tennessee Education Association of its collective bargaining powers — the first item on the GOP’s aggressive agenda to undermine the teachers’ union.
Before his bill cleared the committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Brentwood, criticized the TEA as a “fierce proponent for mediocrity” and labeled collective bargaining “an albatross” hampering children’s education.
“I believe with all my heart that mandatory collective bargaining stifles teacher input," Johnson said. "Everything must pass through the funnel of the hyper-partisan, politically charged union, whose primary objective is preservation of the union and its power, not the well-being of teachers and students.”
The hearing room at Legislative Plaza was filled to overflowing with dozens of retired teachers and other TEA supporters as well as union opponents, including members of the Tea Party.
“The TEA is invariably in favor of higher taxes and bigger government. They are a political organization,” said Ben Cunningham, a Tea Party activist and anti-tax crusader.
The bill’s supporters, which include the state’s association of school boards, insisted it will foster more collaboration between teachers and administrators. Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said he looked forward to a “collegial atmosphere of a family working together.”
“It would be totally ridiculous for the school board not to listen to the teachers,” said Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville. “Trust me, they’re going to listen to the teachers. It’s time for us to get along. I’m going to vote for this bill because I think it’s the right thing for young people.”
But the TEA said Republicans were retaliating because the union refused their demands to give more campaign contributions to GOP candidates in the last elections.
“That disgusts me,” Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, said of the Republicans’ reputed backroom demands for cash. “And then you see these bills coming.”
That caused Crowe to launch into an emotional speech in which he denied any political motivations.
“I’ve got tears in my eyes right now and I hope I get through this,” Crowe said. “I can promise you that’s not part of this. … I know that what we’re trying to do on our side of this is the right thing. We’re not trying to create a situation wherein we hurt. We want us all to work together.”
Republicans also have filed bills to unseat TEA representatives from the teachers’ pension-governing board, and end automatic paycheck withdrawals for membership dues for public employee unions. Another bill would ban labor organizations, including the TEA, from giving to political campaigns.
In state legislatures across the country, newly empowered Republicans are backing similar measures against teachers’ organizations.