Could Wisconsin controversy boost teachers’ unions?

Liz Goodwin

The labor controversy raging in Wisconsin may have an unexpected consequence: Boosting the reputation of teachers' unions. Critics on the right have long assailed teachers' unions as Democratic power brokers, while lately some backers of education reform proposals have criticized unions as change-averse bureaucracies.

A recent poll and reports of donations flowing in to help protesting workers suggests this may be a unique opportunity for teachers' unions to drum up public support, after taking hits in the popular education documentary "Waiting for Superman," as well as from reform-minded school leaders such as former Washington, D.C., superintendent Michelle Rhee, who say unions protect teachers at the expense of kids.

Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, came off as a villain in "Waiting for Superman"--but she put in an appearance last night on the Colbert Report show, exchanging banter with the host as he trotted out exaggerated versions of the conservative case against the unions. "These terrorist union leaders should be hunted down and dealt with!" he said to audience laughter, before asking Weingarten: "Why should we continue to allow you to organize so you can hurt our children, our country, and our budget?"

Colbert's parody hinged on a larger point that teachers unions, at least, take very seriously: It's ridiculous to blame the complex challenges of our education system--not to mention our national economy--on unionized teachers. Still, union-blaming has spread across the ideological spectrum in recent years, with unions seeming sclerotic and defensive as they continued to resist changes to seniority hiring and firing rules, linking teacher pay to student test scores, and other reform priorities. And the unions also got unwelcome public attention for fiascos such as the "rubber room" disciplinary sytem in New York's school system, which paid teachers to do nothing as they awaited disciplinary hearings.

But now teachers could come off in a more sympathetic public light, as the battle over collective bargaining in Wisconsin may bring home that more is at stake for unions here than cushy job protections and a top-heavy seniority system.

"It's too early to tell obviously, but I think this could be a turning point where the dominant narrative that teachers are to blame for all sorts of problems including … low test scores and the like [will change]," Century Foundation fellow Richard Kahlenberg told The Lookout. Kahlenberg has written that education reform leaders such as Rhee are misguided in their attacks on unionized teachers. "Now when people are suggesting they're also to blame for the budget crisis, I think there'll be some sympathy for teachers and some reconsideration of the broad attack on teachers."

"There's the potential that this overreach by conservatives will generate sympathy for teachers' unions among Democrats who had perviously quarreled with unions over education reform," he added.

A USA Today/Gallup poll shows that while the public is ambivalent about public-sector unions, 61 percent of Americans still oppose proposals to end collective bargaining rights for them. (The New York Times' Nate Silver explains the differing polls on the issue here.)

John Matthews, the head of Madison Teachers Inc. union, told The Lookout that his group has seen support flow in from around the country. "Demonstrators eating in local establishments when going to pay the bill often say it is comped or that someone else has paid," he wrote in an e-mail. A local pizza shop has also received $25,000 in donations around the country and world to help feed the protesters, he says. "The outpouring of support is overwhelming," Matthews said.

Still, another news story coming out of the protests reinforced the popular image of teachers' unions as featherbedding outfits--and not surprisingly, union officials have been loath to answer questions about it. News cameras showed doctors writing sick notes for some teachers during the protests at the Wisconsin Capitol, which took place on school days. Public schools closed in Madison and Milwaukee last week as teachers called in sick or took personal days to protest. No official strike has been called.

Union officials have been distinctly evasive in confirming whether some of their members were lying about being ill with the help of doctors. Milwaukee Wisconsin Teachers Union President Mike Langyel would not answer Fox New's Megyn Kelley when she asked him about the allegations. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel gave no direct reply to a detailed email about whether it's appropriate for teachers to call in sick to protest. "Whether educators are at the Capitol or in their schools and classrooms, their voices will remain strong--and they will continue to be heard wherever and whenever they can," Van Roekel wrote in answer to The Lookout's own email about the sick notes. Matthews, the head of the Madison union, wrote "the docs say many of the people they saw suffered from stress or had sore throats."

There's also the possibility that teachers could strike if Gov. Scott Walker's proposal eventually passes. Walker, who has majorities behind him in the state legislature, has repeatedly stressed that he doesn't intend to back down. Teachers' strikes generally don't play well in the court of public opinion--but Kahlenberg says that need not be the case here.

In Ohio, about 3,000 teachers showed up to the capitol to protest a similar proposal to cut collective bargaining, according to NEA spokeswoman Michelle Hudgins. Hudgins says many schools had snow days so teachers could attend the protest without taking a personal day. Others came after the school day was over.

Meanwhile, some conservative governors seem to want to dodge any showdown with their state teachers' unions altogether. Governors Rick Scott of Florida and Mitch Daniels of Indiana--both opponents of teachers' unions--said yesterday they want legislators to back off various union issues in their states.

You can watch Weingarten on the Colbert Show below.

(Madison teacher Jo St. Clair at a rally on Friday: AP.)