Wisconsin union struggle and Newton budget parallels

By Denebola
Published: March 2011

In past several months public sector unions have suffered attacks by the state governments of Ohio, Indiana and most notably, Wisconsin. The Wisconsin governor recently succeeded in a bill stripping collective bargaining rights from most public workers.
Tens of thousands of protestors responded by flooding the lawn and cramming the halls of the Wisconsin State Capitol. Democratic senators walked out and remained in Illinois so as to create a legislative stalemate by depriving their Republican counterparts of a quorum on fiscal matters.
After three weeks, the Wisconsin governor and Republican senators pushed through the bill limiting bargaining for public-sector workers by a much-criticized late-night repeal of parts of a previous bill restricting the number of senators needed for a quorum.
In Newton labor problems exist but in the area of education are handled less dramatically. “People move to Newton to raise their children in a top-tier education environment and therefore Newton prioritizes education,” Physics teacher and Newton Teacher Association Building Representative Alex Kraus said.
Historically strong support of public education and the Newton Public Schools translates into power for teachers and their unions to negotiate. “Our teacher unions are stronger,” History teacher Jamie Rinaldi said, “Deval Patrick looks to cut public funding but does not have the boldness to attack teachers union in Massachusetts due to their high levels of public support.”
Current lack of teacher contracts in Newton and announced plans on future cuts in public education do not appear to parallel conditions in Wisconsin. “Newton has a budget shortfall and therefore there are tough economic conditions for the union and school committee,” Kraus said, “It should be noted that this is not the first case that we have worked for a period of a year without a contract, and it will not be the last.”
Yet the power of unions in the past has not fazed Wisconsin’s union opponents. “Wisconsin has been a huge supporter of public education,” Principal Joel Stembridge said, “It is disconcerting that this is happening in Wisconsin.”
Rinaldi agrees, but is heartened by the responses to the Wisconsin bill. “The response by the teacher’s unions, this massive collective response where people are occupying their state house is also evidence that unions aren’t going to back down easily. There is strong popular support for the teachers.”
Despite how it was accomplished, passing the Wisconsin bill could affect teachers unions in Newton and nationwide. “A loss in [Wisconsin] would send the message that unions are weak and can be knocked down” Rinaldi said.
And a collapse of teacher’s unions would offer easier cuts in public education budgets. “We’re in a dire economy and one of the ways to solve that is to cut on teacher’s pensions, health care, and pay rather than press for more a more equitable tax arrangement,” English teacher Michael Kennedy said.
Failure to pass this bill or bills limiting or eliminating collective bargaining in other states would offer a brighter future for teacher and other public service unions. “What happens in Wisconsin affects every union in the country as it sends a message to legislators,” Rinaldi said.
Alex Kraus takes this assessment a step further, saying, “My hope is that the struggle in Wisconsin sheds light on the public sector’s work and their contribution to society.”
NTA President, Mike Zilles, believes that Newton is safe from the drive to strip public school teachers of collective bargaining, “[Mayor] Setti Warren has made it clear from the beginning that he does not agree with the drive to take away collective bargaining rights.”
The power of teachers will most likely be their saving grace.
“The responsibilities of teachers are immense, nothing short of insuring the happiness and well being of the American community and the future of the nation,” Stembridge said. “In the words of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher aboard the Challenger space shuttle, ‘I teach. I touch the future.’”

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