Tennessee: Another Battle Front

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Jase Short

AS ATTACKS ON public sector workers heat up around the nation, Tennessee has experienced its own battles over collective bargaining — even though few segments of the public sector workforce belong to unions.

The Tennessee State Employee Association (TSEA) has been historically more of a surrogate than an actual union. After the inspiration of the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike and the struggles of the 1970s, mostly by K-12 teachers, achieved the right to collective bargaining, the TSEA arose as a counterweight to actual efforts at unionizing public sector workers. In exchange for dues checkoff, public sector workers lost the right to strike. The TSEA — after purging itself of radicals and progressive Democrats — effectively ceased to function as an organization.

The Tennessee Educators Association (TEA), representing over 50,000 K-12 educators, is the largest union in the state. The TEA has a much more complicated story than TSEA’s, but over the past two decades the organization (which refuses to call itself a union or to associate with other components of the labor movement) has functioned primarily as a stopgap against the worst excesses that would be visited upon teachers by administrators and Tennessee’s rightwing government.

Beyond that noble role, the TEA is the major social force providing campaign funds for the Democratic Party in the state (outside of Memphis and Nashville). It is in this context that the Republican-controlled legislature proposed to repeal collective bargaining rights from the TEA, as part of a package of legislation that would also destroy living wage ordinances and ban unions from contributing to political campaigns.

For the first time in decades, teachers held rallies around the state. A press conference at Legislative Plaza drew 300 teachers and other labor activists, turning it into a miniature rally. The “Save the American Dream” day of action called by MoveOn and Van Jones drew 600 people to Legislative Plaza, an amazing number, especially with three days’ notice.

Then came March 5th, the large TEA-sponsored rally. In spite of flood-like rain, 3,000 supporters came out to march in Nashville, a truly historic event that did not go unnoticed by Tennessee’s extremely rightwing legislature. (In 2008 the legislature was one of only a handful that actually shifted from Democratic to Republican control; the 2010 election saw the effective disappearance of the Democrats with the most Republican-dominated legislature since Reconstruction.)

On March 15th, the rank-and-file United Campus Workers (an affiliate of CWA) spearheaded the organization of a rally in Nashville that would gain sponsorship from the AFL-CIO, SEIU and various labor forces in the state (quite a small population). The TEA and TSEA refused to sign on to the rally or promote it in any way, but still over 1,000 came out in a stunning display of the labor movement’s sudden rebirth.

Following the rally, several groups of activists from various radical groups, AFSCME, UCW (no staff, just rank and file with both unions) attended the Senate Commerce Committee meeting.

The Committee was supposed to discuss four pieces of anti-worker legislation, but instead prioritized another piece of legislation (this with the usually empty room packed with union members and supporters, including firefighters). After an hour and a half of sitting through the meeting, the group rose and interrupted with chants of, “Hey hey, ho ho, union busting has got to go” and “Lies and tricks will not divide, workers standing side by side” as well as “no justice, no peace.”

Clearly befuddled, the Committee Chair and Senator who introduced the attack on the TEA’s collective bargaining rights, Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), called for the room to be cleared. After 20 or so minutes of disruption, most of the union supporters left the room, marching down the aisles of Legislative Plaza, chanting and singing, “Solidarity Forever.” Seven courageous activists stayed behind and were arrested, the first arrests for civil disobedience at the state Capitol in decades.

Lt. Governor Ramsey — infamous for his statement “Islam is a cult…or whatever” — said that “this General Assembly will not be intimidated by nomadic bands of professional agitators on spring break bent on disruption. Tennessee is not Wisconsin.” (Readers may remember hearing “Egypt is not Tunisia” when protests began there.)

Governor Bill Haslam introduced a bill that would curtail but not eliminate collective bargaining rights for the TEA. The bill is obviously unacceptable, but the compromise is a sign that raising our voices and mobilizing great numbers of people has had a positive effect.

In the meantime, the Nashville 7 face charges of “disorderly conduct” and resisting arrest — the latter for going limp. Efforts are being made to continue this struggle and to bring it to the next stage in the very near future.

ATC 152, May-June 2011