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Teacher terminations spur labor rallies

Second in a five-part series

Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011
This article is part of the series Education in Crisis

A crowd of middle-aged Rhode Island public employees gathered Feb. 22 at the State House in a show of solidarity for the Wisconsin workers threatened by their governor’s proposal to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. Barely a week later, the Ocean State saw a second rally for organized labor. This time, more than 1,000 ralliers turned out to support government employees closer to home.

The same day as the rally to support Wisconsin workers, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ decision to issue dismissal notices to all 1,926 Providence public school teachers sent shockwaves across the nation and focused the public labor spotlight directly on Rhode Island. The state’s teachers unions quickly organized in response ­— calling in President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers union to join the March 2 protest.

The past 25 years have seen the American labor movement suffer a “slow, agonizing death,” according to Scott Molloy, University of Rhode Island professor of labor and industrial relations. Recent events have incited unions across the nation to “rise up and fight to the death,” he said.

The Providence decision was “particularly galling for most people because it came from a Democratic Hispanic mayor who originally seemed to have sympathies for people like the teachers,” Molloy said.

Jay Goodman PhD’66, Wheaton College professor of political science and the author of “Democrats and Labor in Rhode Island, 1952-1962,” said the current outlook for organized labor is unclear. The recent flare-ups could be anything from “a blip” to the threshold of a “whole new type of politics,” he said. “We don’t really know yet if this is an earthquake or something temporary.”

Given its Democratic leaning, Rhode Island would be the “last place to respond to a natural trend like that,” Goodman said.


‘Back-door Wisconsin’

Recent events have reenergized the American labor movement in a way that was — until several weeks ago — inconceivable, Molloy said.

“It’s brought public employees and education to the forefront,” said Lawrence Purtill, president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island. The renewed attention offers an opportunity for organized labor, he said. “If you take advantage and do something positive about it, then it will be a good thing.”

According to a nationwide February poll conducted by the New York Times, a plurality of Americans ­­— 30 percent — have a positive view of organized labor, while 25 percent view unions negatively. The survey also found 60 percent oppose weakening collective bargaining rights, and 56 percent are against cutting the benefits of public employees to reduce budget deficits.

“I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to labor in a long time, because instead of the usual Halloween costumes and subterfuge, this stuff is right up front,” Molloy said. “You either fight — and fight to the end to maintain what you’ve been enjoying for a long time — or else it’s all over.”

Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers Union, has spoken out vociferously against the firings. He referred to the Providence situation as a “back-door Wisconsin” at a Feb. 22 Providence School Board meeting.

But Rhode Island is not quite Wisconsin, Purtill said. “I think Wisconsin is pure politics,” he said. “I don’t believe that’s true here. I’d like to continue to believe the mayor made a mistake, and now the question is, politically, how do you resolve it?”


Negotiate or terminate

Whether Taveras, barely two months into his first term in office, has irreparably damaged his relationship with labor is — for the moment — unclear.

“The entire spectrum of organized labor in Rhode Island was represented at the rally the other day,” Robert Walsh ’83, executive director of the statewide NEA chapter, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. “If this situation remains unresolved, then the damage will probably be permanent.”

Teachers from across the state — alongside members of Local 1033 of the Laborers International Union of North America and members of state firefighters unions — gathered in support of Providence teachers on the steps of City Hall last week. Some members of the Providence Teachers Union wore prisoner numbers to signify they were among the teachers who had been terminated. Others took up the booming chant that set the tone of the rally — “negotiate, not terminate!”

Taveras attended a private meeting with Weingarten, the national teachers union president, following the event, Taveras spokesman David Ortiz wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

Purtill was one of numerous leaders to speak at both rallies. Sporting a red Wisconsin jacket in a show of solidarity, he said his message to Taveras — “Don’t let this be a Wisconsin” — was clear.

A former history teacher and president of the state’s NEA chapter for the past 12 years, Purtill is no stranger to rallies. He characterized them as emotionally charged events that have come to represent the labor movement in the past century.

“Union leadership, whether in other states or here, are still adhering to the script of their well-worn playbook, which says, ‘Resort to loud rallies and accusations of elected officials trying to break unions when the call for concessions gets too aggressive,'” Rhode Island Statewide Coalition spokeswoman Donna Perry wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. The coalition advocates for taxpayer and business interests. Perry added that accusations of a “Republican conspiracy” to bust unions fall flat given that Taveras is the Democratic mayor of left-leaning Providence.

While he understands the need to fight for union rights, Purtill said he wishes rallies did not have to happen, adding that they distract from the teachers unions’ true focus — the students. “We can’t just ignore education,” he said. “We’ve got to figure this out, to make it work.”


Working the system

Rhode Island is one of 14 states that require teachers to be laid off solely based on seniority. Due to provisions in existing teachers union contracts, the newest teachers are always the first to go when a district cuts jobs. Currently, only three states require performance to be the most important factor in layoff decisions.

Taveras’ decision to fire teachers instead of laying them off means he will have greater leeway to eliminate the positions of senior teachers, who command larger salaries. The mass firings might be a statement saying, “Let’s get rid of the old timers, not necessarily because they’re bad, but because they cost more,” Molloy said.

While a first-year teacher makes approximately $35,000 a year, a teacher with 25 or 30 years on the job can cost the district more than $70,000, Purtill said.

One uncertainty is whether Providence teachers will “work-to-rule.” It is against the law in Rhode Island for public school employees to participate in strikes. Instead, teachers sometimes refuse to perform any service not specifically listed in their contract.

In that case, teachers refuse to perform many of the voluntary services that families take for granted — after-school help, field trips and parent-teacher conferences — until the union is able to negotiate with the district. In recent years, teachers in Johnston and the Exeter-West Greenwich Regional School District have used the tactic during impasses in contract negotiations.

Though Purtill said most officials are hoping for a quick resolution, it is impossible to predict the exact tactics unions will take if the clash with Taveras continues to drag on. “No teacher likes it — nobody likes it,” he said of work-to-rule. In Rhode Island, it has only occurred when “there’s been no alternative to solving negotiations.”


Chafee’s silen

Some have suggested Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 — elected with strong support from the state’s largest teachers unions — may fall short on his promise to be a tough negotiator with public labor. Historically, unions have held a great deal of sway in Rhode Island politics.

Unions have “basically controlled the state legislature for many decades, which is how their benefits and retirement packages, among the best in the nation, were green-lighted by statutes passed by the General Assembly over the years,” Perry wrote to The Herald.

Chafee has largely remained silent on the evolving Providence education crisis. “The governor has complete confidence in Mayor Taveras’ ability to handle the situation,” said Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor.

“I’m a little surprised he hasn’t said anything about it yet,” Purtill said. “He came right out in Central Falls.” As a candidate for governor during mass firings in the struggling district last February, Chafee was quick to provide suggestions for mediation. “I can’t just sit on the sidelines and watch labor unrest get sparked,” he told the Providence Journal Feb. 23, 2010.

According to Purtill, unions have always had a good relationship with Chafee. “If he has to make any changes, he’ll do it in a fair manner and with the people it involves,” he said.

 Teachers unions view Chafee as an “honest broker” whose tone differs from that of his Republican predecessor, Walsh wrote, noting that the less labor-friendly former Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65 was the product of the “Old Curriculum” at the University. “Labor will not get everything it wants from Gov. Chafee, but it will be invited into the conversation, which is a welcome change,” he wrote.

Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research, said he is inclined to believe that Chafee’s personal sympathies are likely to lie with those who supported him — the teachers.

Still, the governor “has certainly shown a strong degree of courage in the past,” he said, citing then-Republican Chafee’s decision to campaign for President Obama in 2008. “There’s some history that he can and has stood on his own two feet and has been willing to do what he believed needed to be done.”


Economic distress

When the Providence School Board voted 4-3 in support of Taveras’ decision to terminate the city’s teachers Feb. 24, those in favor saw it as a means to close the school district’s gaping $40 million budget deficit.

But a drawn-out battle with the unions may only add to the economic distress, Purtill said.

In a Feb. 26 interview with Politico, Chafee said, “You don’t want to get into a war you can’t win” about the standoff with labor in Wisconsin. Chafee pointed to the detrimental economic impact a teachers strike dealt to Warwick when he was the city’s mayor from 1993-99.

Politicians could find themselves “in the courtrooms for weeks, months or years fighting this,” Molloy said, which could potentially cost millions. “It’s not going to be pretty,” he said. Smith has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the Rhode Island Labor Relations board and publicly said he plans to contest each of the 1,926 terminations.

Education and finance officials alike await details of the state budget, set to be released today. According to Trainor, the governor will lay out a definitive plan for bridging Rhode Island’s unfunded pension liability — the gap between the state’s obligations to its pensioners and the funds it has set aside for that purpose. The state pension plan covers roughly 50,000 state employees and local teachers.          

During his campaign, Chafee proposed a hybrid plan — modeled on the one currently used by the federal government — that would increase employee contributions to the badly underfunded system, said Ashley Denault MPP’07, policy analyst for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

But 401(k) retirement plans most benefit workers who make upwards of $100,000 dollars, according to Purtill. Generally speaking, he said, that does not include teachers.

Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island general treasurer, recently projected that the state pension plan’s unfunded liability could be as much as $10 billion. If the liability is truly that high, Chafee may not be able to keep his promise not to touch benefits for senior employees, including veteran teachers, Profughi said.

“No one might have the luxury of being able to follow through on the promises that are out there right now,” he said.


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