Sunday, April 15, 2012

Issue #58 April 15, 2012- Recall Information and The Necessity of Educator Unions

What This Is…
Issue #58- April 15, 2012
In this issue: Get Informed and Involved in the Recalls, and Unions Are Needed for Public Educators

Help The Recall Efforts…
After months of waiting to get the recall process started the sprint to the recall elections in Wisconsin presents a very challenging political situation.  With the candidate pool finalized we are only 23 days away from the May 8th primary and 51 days from the June 5th recall elections.  In the world of political campaigning that isn't a whole lot of time to organize a campaign, especially one to unseat a sitting lawmaker or executive who has had time to organize and finance their re-election efforts. 

The upcoming recalls are of utmost importance in the fight against the GOP's takeover of Wisconsin's government.  If the recalls are not successful then we will see an even more aggressive (scary to imagine anything more aggressive than what we've already seen) approach from the conservatives here.  There are many important ways that progressives can work to make the recalls successful.

We must get the message out that the recalls are about more than collective bargaining.  It's true that unions have lead the fight against Walker's agenda, but it's a mistake to think that non-union Wisconsinites don't have anything to fear if conservatives have free rein to do what they want.  Almost every citizen of Wisconsin has a reason to regret the 2008 election that put conservatives in total control of our state government. 

---Wisconsin's economy is lagging behind other states in recovering from the recession.  We're even behind states like Illinois that are, according to Walker, not taking the best approach to fixing their budget woes. 

---Despite what their rhetoric says, the Wisconsin GOP has done little to promote job growth here. 

---The GOP's "War on Women" is very visible here in Wisconsin.

---Cuts to education hurt more than educators and their unions.  They are harmful to our children and to the future of our state.  Education deserves more respect as something of value than it receives from Wisconsin's conservative leadership.  The quality of our educational system can't be simply measured in the costs associated with it.


---As if the items listed above aren't enough there are numerous other ways the GOP's agenda is harmful to Wisconsin.  Attacks on our environmental protections, electoral system and a culture of conflict that has divided our state have taken their toll on us over the past year.  Cuts to the safety nets that citizens rely on for health care and other necessities are harmful to a large number of Wisconsinites.  I could continue on, but will conclude this list by mentioning the deceit and questionable ethics that the GOP has used to try and convince citizens that their agenda is a positive one for Wisconsin.

While this is a national story, the tone and tenor of these statements echo the sentiments expressed by conservatives towards Wisconsin progressives.

Because these elections are so important it is vital that every Wisconsinite do what they can to help the recall effort. 

First, we must insure that the real Democrats win the primary election.  Personally, I believe that running as a candidate for a party should mean that you intend to represent that party and its constituents.  Running as a "protest candidate" is unethical and I feel should be illegal.  The fact that we are seeing such political gamesmanship changes the tone of the elections and weakens the integrity of our entire political process.  We are casting ballots that will affect millions of people and shouldn't have to tolerate these types of strategies (by either party). 

In the races for state senate and Lt. Governor our primary choices are clear. 

Lt. Governor: Mahlon Mitchell leads the field in the effort to replace Lt. Governor Kleefisch.  His opponent in the primary is Isaac Weix. 

Senate District 13:  Lori Compas is the real Democrat running against Garry Ellerman and needs our help in her effort to unseat Fitzgerald.

Senate District 21: John Lehman is running against Tamara Varebrook to unseat Van Wanggaard.

Senate District 23:  Kristen Dexter is running against James Engel to take the seat from Sen. Mouton.

Senate District 29: Donna Seidel is running against Jim Buckely for the seat vacated by Senator Galloway.

In the race for the Democratic nomination to run for Governor against Scott Walker the choices are much tougher.  All four candidates have their strengths and also have some flaws.  The key is that the candidates (and their supporters) are able to articulate the differences between themselves without damaging our chances of unseating Walker in the June election.  It is great that these candidates inspire strong feelings in their supporters, but we can't lost sight of the big picture.  A Walker victory would be a huge blow to the efforts to resist the spread of radical GOP conservatism in Wisconsin and across the nation.    

We must achieve a balance in our efforts to select the best candidate who can unite the many groups who oppose Walker and his GOP supporters.  Citizens must be sure to stay well informed as we approach the May 8th primary. 

We all know that historically neither party has been a consistently strong supporter of organized labor.  However, now is not the time to advance a third party or independent candidate who will divide the electorate.  In a time of crisis all workers must unite to try and regain what has been taken from us.  The over- reach by the GOP has provided workers with an opening to try and regain some control of the political system and we must take this opportunity. 

June may not bring an end to the recall season.  We may see another round of recalls as conservatives use the recall mechanism to express their displeasure with Senator Schulz and Senator Jauch.  It remains to be seen if the conservative organizations will be able generate the same level of support that the progressive movement has. 

A couple of unusual election stories from the April voting.

Educator Unions Are Needed…
Even though the recall movement encompasses more than unions and worker's rights it is true that labor issues are at the core of the resistance to the conservative agenda.  Unions and their supporters have been at the front and center of the movement to reverse the GOP's radical efforts to reshape Wisconsin's political, social and economic landscape.  It is difficult to imagine the recall efforts being as successful as they have been without the organization, financial backing and people power provided by labor unions. 

As a result of these efforts the conservatives have stepped up their efforts to destroy unions here in Wisconsin.  Governor Walker and other GOP leaders mention "big union bosses" and give anti-organized labor messages at every fund-raising and campaign stop.  For conservatives it isn't enough to merely limit the power of unions, they would like to see unions eliminated entirely from the field.

Their primary target in recent days have been public sector unions.  The attacks have taken on many forms with the passage of Act 10 being the centerpiece.  While Act 10 doesn't end the ability of public workers to organize, it effectively limits union power to negotiate to a single item.  By doing this conservatives hope to make joining a union so unattractive that public workers will opt out of labor organizations in large numbers.  We can't forget that Act 10 wasn't about balancing the budget, it was about ending the power of public sector unions.

Conservatives have realized that using legislation won't end the influence of unions without an accompanying strategy of employing anti-union propaganda.  They recognize the need to spread their anti-union message to build support from voters for their union busting efforts.  They are working to spread the message that unions are the cause of our budget woes, that unions protect incompetent workers and that unions are run by corrupt bosses who don't represent workers.  By hand-picking examples to support their claims and using conservative media and advertising the GOP has attempted to discredit labor unions.   

Members and supporters of public sector unions need to counter the GOP attacks with facts and stories of our own.  The upcoming elections will be close and we must educate voters so that they aren't fooled by conservative propaganda.  Labor unions of all types, public and private, are necessary and important for many reasons.  I should note that many of my examples will be specific to educator unions, but the general ideas can be used to support other types of unions.  I'm just more familiar with issues surrounding educator unions. 

Educator unions have been a special target of Governor Walker and our members have risen in large numbers to protest his agenda.  Walker has targeted educator unions for a variety of reasons, but one of the primary motives is that education spending is one of the largest items in the state budget.  In order for Walker to shift money spent in education to other areas he needs to break the unions who stand in his way.  He also recognizes the political power that educator unions have in Wisconsin and would like to see their influence in state politics removed.  Another reason to break educator unions is the fact that privatization of our education system would mean huge profits for private education companies.

So, why do we need educator unions?

Why shouldn't all workers have a right to unionize?  There is value in labor.  This statement is one that isn't widely supported by conservatives.  In a world dominated by conservatives, only the top echelon of management and labor deserves respect.  Until someone reaches the "top of the ladder" they are at the mercy of those on higher rungs.  Individual workers have little if any say in their wages, benefits and working conditions unless they organize and bargain collectively.  By eliminating bargaining rights through legislation, Walker has guaranteed an unequal playing field that benefits management over labor. 

Inequities in wages and working conditions between different races and genders can't be forgotten either.  Seniority and other collectively bargained items provide a "fairer" way to compensate workers and avoid racial and gender based discrimination.      

Destroying public sector unions is only the first step here in Wisconsin.  If the GOP can weather the recalls and maintain power the next labor legislation will probably include right-to-work concepts.  While conservatives will try and make right-to work sound like something that benefits workers, the reality is quite different.  Even conservative idol Ronald Reagan, in correspondence to Paul A. French in 1966, stated, "I also was a leader of our guild in the fight in 1958 against the right-to-work bill.  I am still opposed to right-to-work."  Of course his rhetoric changed as he gained national prominence and needed to cement his conservative image. 

To defend working conditions that make our schools better places for students to learn and that provide stability in labor relations for school districts.  It is disturbing to see that conservatives are trying undermine the professionalism of educators.  With the passage of Act 10 handbooks are replacing collective bargaining agreements.  These handbooks frequently de-professionalize educators and attempt to micro-manage educators actions and behaviors.  Conservatives tend to ignore the fact that educators are highly educated adults who are genuinely interested in educating their students.  Wages, benefits and working conditions that benefit educators also go a long way towards benefiting students.       

Education is a labor intensive field.  To educate students well requires a significant commitment of time and energy.  Educators need time to communicate with each other, plan lessons designed to meet student needs and assess the effectiveness of their instruction.  In order to be prepared to meet the diverse needs of all learners educators need time to learn new strategies and techniques.  Many outside the field of education don't realize exactly what is required to be an effective educator.  Instead of relying on politicians and non-educator sources citizens would be better served to get more accurate information about what schools and educators need through participation in volunteer activities or other sources of information.

The collective bargaining agreements that have evolved over the decades have resulted in a system that is relatively stable in terms of labor-management relations.  Policies and procedures like seniority and teacher evaluations are established and reduce confusion in the hiring and discipline process.  A radical shift like the one created by Act 10 will increase anxiety and confusion as we prepare for the upcoming school year. 

To protect quality instruction from "education fads" and political whims.  As of this moment, we haven't found the perfect way to instruct all students so that they are successful.  Until we find that "magic bullet" we will continue to see a variety of methods used to instruct students.  In the current climate there is a tendency to try and mandate how educators educate from the top.  While (unfortunately) we may be "racing to the top", it is the efforts of individual educators that will have the most impact on students.  If we rely on top-down management of our educational system our instruction will not be consistent of effective.  Instead of meeting the needs of the students in each classroom we will see an ongoing struggle with educational topics and techniques changing based on unsound reasoning.

Here are a few examples of problematic initiatives and other issues that arise as we work to "improve" education.  Improvements to education need to come from educators, not politicians or "experts" who are frequently not even in classrooms on a daily basis.  Unionized educators enjoy more protections from unfair discipline and are more able to defend their instructional practices.  As a result their students benefit and true educational reforms can be advanced. 

To allow educators to educate.  Unionized educators have the power to stand up for their students without fear of being unfairly disciplined.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to educate students without encountering some controversial issues.  This year in my classroom of 4th and 5th graders we have discussed topics like affirmative action, concealed carry and other similar topics.  Students bring these up and are engaged in discussions.  They have their opinions and bring a wide variety of ideas to class.  They also have ideas about what is happening in the Wisconsin political scene. 

Two of my most powerful teaching memories come from dealing with controversial topics.  After 9/11 my students were understandably confused and upset.  I had a student from Israel and another from north Africa in my classroom.  The perspective that each of these students brought to our classroom discussions was powerful and informative.  A couple of years later I had a Muslim student in my room who wanted to start wearing a hijab.  She told the class what wearing a hijab signified and why it was important to her.  The other students learned about a different religion and supported her.  They advocated for her on the playground, in the hallways and took their knowledge home.  All of this culminated in their adamant defense of this student when some adults coming through the building commented negatively to staff about her hijab.

I make every effort to keep material appropriate for the age and maturity level of my students.  I also allow them to bring topics up and don't push my beliefs into the classroom.  In fact I often find myself asking questions and representing a position opposite my own beliefs in an effort to make sure students are thinking about their opinions.  If we are going to teach students to be thoughtful and informed we must deal with issues that are important to them.  If an educator is fearful of being disciplined or censored then truly teaching students becomes extremely difficult.         

To protect educators from unfair evaluations.  In the same way that we haven't found the perfect teaching methods, we also haven't found an accurate way to measure educator effectiveness.  In the current climate we find politicians looking for a way to quantify "good" teaching and using data to eliminate "bad" educators.  Unions help protect teachers from being evaluated in unfair and illogical ways.

Unions provide opposition to corporate control of education.  There is no doubt that corporate interests are hoping to get a piece of the profits that they see available in educating students of all ages.  Without unions standing in their way it would be up to individuals to fight the privatization of our schools alone.  The Madison Prep proposal her in Madison is an example of how unions help provide a defense against privatization of schools.  The Madison School Board and MMSD Administration was able to use the existing collective bargaining agreement to hold supporters of Madison Prep accountable for keeping their proposal reasonable and fair for all students and employees.    

Harlem charter school teachers unionize

Unions are a voice for funding public schools in fair and equitable ways.  These are difficult days for public schools in Wisconsin.  Budget cuts have created an environment where it is challenging to provide quality programming for all students.  Unions are one strong voice in the effort to create an equitable funding system for our schools.  It is a message that needs to be shared widely, before our public education system is gutted by conservative policies and replaced by a privatized, corporate system.   

Unions are working to promote public education and work cooperatively with the community, school boards and administrations.  The landscape of public education in Wisconsin is very different in 2012 than it was just a couple of yeas ago.  School administrators, school boards community members and educators now face a unified effort to end public education by conservative forces.  Supporters of public education must find ways to work together to protect our schools and promote public education.  While there may be differing viewpoints about specific issues the bigger picture must be remembered as different groups work to create policy in these challenging times.

As an educator I don't feel that I could do my job well without the support of my union and my fellow educators.  As you can see collective bargaining and union rights are more than just the simple financial and political issue Walker and the conservatives would like them to be.  I didn't mention the obvious financial and other benefits unionizing in the workplace provide.  The connections between union membership and higher wages/better benefits are very clear in most situations.  However, to view unions as only an economic issue oversimplifies the reality of the situation.  An oversimplification that allows conservatives to manipulate the reality of the situation and divide the electorate. 

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