BARTLETT, Tenn. - A rally of thousands of teachers at the state Capitol in Nashville on Saturday marked a turning point for Tennessee.
It came in response to moves by the new tea-party-controlled Republican majority in the state Legislature, which has introduced several new bills designed to cripple unions and wage earners and further enrich their corporate sponsors.
The following four bills, if passed, would turn teacher and other public employee unions into little more than social clubs:
HB 159/SB 136: Prohibits public employees from having a payroll deduction to a political action committee or for union dues if the union uses any of its dues for political activities.
HB 130/SB 113: Abolishes teachers unions' ability to negotiate terms and conditions of professional service with local boards of education.
HB 367/SB 0624: Weakens teachers' tenure protection by allowing boards of education to grant tenure at any time between teachers' third and tenth years of service; eliminates judicial review of decision to suspend or dismiss a teacher for incompetence, inefficiency, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct or insubordination.
SB 102/HB 565: Changes the method of selection of trustees of Tennessee teachers' pension plan from election by the representative assemblies of the Tennessee Education Association and the Tennessee Retired Teachers Association respectively to appointment by the speakers of the Senate and the House.
And the following two bills are especially frightening as they will affect all labor organizations and wage earners in Tennessee:
HB 160/SB 139: Makes it a Class C misdemeanor for any labor organization to make financial contributions to candidates.
HB 598/SB 630: Repeals local city and county fair wage laws. In Shelby County and Memphis, this could reduce some workers' wages by as much as 40 percent.
Until Saturday, Tennessee had not seen the kind of public outcry against this attack on labor and the middle class as has been shown in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and many other states. Only about 600 people showed up on February 26 at the Tennessee state Capitol building in response to Moveon.org's call to demonstrate at every state Capitol in a show of support for Wisconsin union members. There was very little media coverage of the event. It was not mentioned at all in the Memphis press.
However, at a rally at the Capitol on Saturday called by the Tennessee Education Association, at least 3,000 people braved rain, wind and cold to demand justice for Tennessee teachers. The day before the March 5 rally, Chip Forrester, chair of Tennessee's Democratic Party, sent an e-mail to registered Democrats throughout the state urging party members to support the teachers' rally. He wrote, "Please join us on Saturday and help us show Republicans that Tennesseans want political leadership on big issues like jobs and the economy - not political attacks on teachers. Let them know you respect the people who teach our children and that we stand with educators and working people - not the radical Republicans who are trying to strip away the political power of the middle class."
At the Saturday rally, thousands of teachers and supporters gathered at a nearby park and then marched to Legislative Plaza. Once they arrived at the plaza, they were encouraged to keep up the fight by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who told them, "Plain and simple, this is a political ball game and they want to silence you."
"Are you going to let them silence you?" he asked. The crowd roared, "No, no, no."
Mike Turner, Tennessee House Democratic Caucus chairperson, addressed his comments to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam. Turner called out in a loud voice at the microphone, "Governor Haslam, if you're listening, please stop this terrorism against our teachers."
Turner then warned the crowd that Republicans won't stop with dismantling teachers unions and bargaining rights. "They'll be coming after police officers, firefighters, construction workers and service workers next," he said.
More demonstrations are planned.
The Memphis Police Association will be joining police associations from around the state on March 15 to rally at the state capitol against planned attempts by the Tennessee Republican legislators to put an end to collective bargaining for all public employees.
Also on March 15, the Workers Interfaith Network is sponsoring a rally to protest the repeal of fair wage laws. Both groups are scheduled to meet on the Capitol steps at noon.
Unfortunately the different constituent groups representing labor and wage earners in Tennessee have not coordinated their efforts so far. Some activists say it would be more effective if all those concerned about the Republican attack on the state's middle class and labor could unite in one rally instead of spreading out their efforts and their numbers over multiple rallies.
Tennesseans might learn from the words of a former Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, who said, "A house divided ... cannot stand." It seems like it's time here for unions, civil rights organizations, justice and peace groups, the Democratic Party and other progressive organizations and individuals to join together, to defeat the tea-party-Republican efforts to destroy labor and make the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us.
Photo: Teachers rally March 5 at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in Nashville. (Tennessee Education Association Facebook page)