Wisconsin's new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is trying to cut teachers' benefits and limit their collective bargaining rights to fill a $137 million hole in his budget.
To blunt Walker's plan, Democratic legislators fled the state, taking up residence in Illinois to deny Republicans the needed quorum for a vote. Conservatives nationwide are using the drama to push the idea that public service unions are responsible for deficit woes, keeping bad teachers in classrooms and saddling taxpayers with the bill for their generous pensions.
What happens if Walker gets his way? Wisconsin might look a lot more like Virginia.
In 1977 the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that collective bargaining for public employees was illegal. Teachers, police, firemen and others still could organize, but lacked the bargaining tools permitted in other states. The only other states with similar restrictions on public-sector labor activity are North Carolina and Texas.
“We've always joked about our contracts,” says Kitty Boitnott, president of the 60,000-member Virginia Education Association. “In other states everything is bargained, from whether you can eat lunch away from the school to how much break time you get. Our contracts simply say you're hired for a year and you may be expected to do other duties as assigned, such as work at the PTA or at Saturday festivals.”
Many Virginia teachers are used to having few rights, she says, but it comes as a culture shock for teachers moving in from other states.
Labor issues remain, however, for teachers and other public workers. In money-strapped Chesterfield County, teachers will have to deal with the same salary levels they had two years ago while being required to do more. Also in Chesterfield, police officers and sheriff's deputies are suing the county, saying they've been shortchanged in overtime pay.
Meanwhile, the hullabaloo in Wisconsin is casting public service workers as greedy and incorrigible, Boitnott says: “We have become the new villain and the cause of all mayhem and destruction.”