In a March 28 speech sponsored by the Commonwealth Club, AFT president Randi Weingarten challenged those who have blamed public employees and their right to collectively bargain as a cause of their states' fiscal problems.
Noting that there is no relationship between states whose employees have bargaining rights and states that have big deficits, Weingarten said, "Don't let anyone tell you that robbing workers of voice will somehow repair deficits." She pointed out what she called "a great irony" in light of increasing efforts to strip workers of their right to bargain collectively, saying that "collective bargaining is not the cause of our state budget crises, but it can be a part of the solution."
Weingarten criticized elected leaders, such as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, "who prefer a scorched-earth approach, who refuse to consider the input of others, and who sell their reckless measures as necessary expediencies in desperate times." Even though Wisconsin's public employees agreed to massive pay cuts and every proposed concession, Weingarten said, Walker "refused to take yes for an answer."
In contrast, Weingarten said that the approach to dealing with huge deficits being pursued by California Gov. Jerry Brown was one of "shared responsibility … that hopefully will lead to a better budgetary outcome in the short term and better economic output in the long term."
"This is a time for our nation to turn to public employees, instead of turning against public employees," Weingarten said. "Collective bargaining is a means to bring together the voices of workers; it's problem-solving that incorporates the wisdom of the frontlines. It can be a means to find creative ways to maintain or protect vital public services in the face of budget shortfalls."
Weingarten offered examples of places where collective bargaining is working to help solve budget problems right now, and of how frontline insight can help meet our challenges. She cited the ABC Unified School District outside of Los Angeles, where a commitment to working together has enabled the teachers union and district leadership to keep the effects of budget cuts as far from students and classrooms as possible. Despite years of economic scarcity, ABC has so far avoided teacher layoffs and their devastating impact on student success, one of only a handful of California school districts that did not cut teaching positions during the recession and its aftermath.
Additionally, Weingarten cited examples in which teachers and other public employees identified significant cost-savings, including in Broward County, Fla., where teachers—through their union—called attention to significant wasteful spending, and the courts agreed with them. She also urged school districts to stanch chronic teacher turnover—a problem shown to cost school districts $7.3 billion annually. And she noted that closing the tax gap—the amount of money businesses and individuals owe in taxes but fail to pay—could save tens of billions of dollars each year.
"One thing that we've learned over the past few months is that it's relatively easy to balance budgets if you're willing to unbalance everything else—public services, jobs, investments in the future, and the middle class," Weingarten said. "What's hard is balancing budgets in a way that preserves essential services and ensures that the cuts we make today don't haunt us for years—or generations—to come."
"Union workers didn't cause this mess, but we're willing to do our part to clean it up. Yes, there will be sacrifices—nobody denies that," she said. "But if the first sacrifice is our rights—to free association; to work together for the public good; to have a voice in what we do, how we do it and what we earn—if those go, that will extract a toll on this nation more costly than any budget number."
"We need thoughtful and strategic approaches that share responsibility, particularly for those who can afford it," Weingarten said. "To govern is to choose—and governors across the country are making damaging and tragic choices."
In Michigan, she noted, Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing to cut corporate taxes by $1.8 billion, while cutting public education by $470 per pupil. In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker has called for $200 million in tax cuts, and has proposed $1.7 billion in cuts to education. And in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed up to $400 million in corporate tax breaks, while calling for education to be cut by $1.2 billion.
"These are exactly the wrong choices, and these choices are being obscured by the relentless attacks on public employees and on collective bargaining. For if the investment in education is not maintained, children and communities will suffer. We will not only limit their individual potential, we will limit our nation's ability to grow out of our present challenges."
She concluded: "We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by trying a more cooperative, negotiation-oriented approach to resolving our budget problems." [AFT press release]
March 28, 2011