Scott Walker’s double

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The biggest danger that the teachers’ unions, and really all public sector employee unions, face is that of “copycat” Walkers.

But let’s be clear: The Wisconsin battle over collective bargaining is not going to play out in Massachusetts like it has in the Badger state. The fact is that there are important differences between our states. Our major collective bargaining issues are local in the short-term and in the longer-term both state and local. In the near-term that means we need to focus on giving local municipal leaders the same ability that the state has to purchase health care benefits in bulk and without negotiating collectively on the benefit packages put forward.

But lest unions take the wrong lesson—that Massachusetts can whistle past the graveyard in this battle between opponents and proponents of collective bargaining—let me provide a cautionary tale. It can be summarized in one word: Providence. Let me explain. In November, former Providence mayor David Cicilline, who was not profligate in his contracts with teachers and municipal employees, decided to run for Congress. Had he stayed, he would have had to oversee a contract negotiation that has to be among the most difficult seen in municipal politics for a while.

Providence is the capital. Contract raises the past few years have been nominally 1.5 percent a year (though that balloons upwards on the basis of step increases). Teachers have had to agree to pay for their health care insurance. In November, they helped elect Angel Taveras, a former housing court judge and the city’s first Hispanic-American mayor. With strikingly high foreclosure rates in the housing market impairing the city’s property tax base and a very difficult business climate, there is nothing in the coffers to offer teachers or other municipal employees, and the rising cost of health care and other benefits is unsustainable.


So what does this Democratic mayor of Rhode Island’s capital do? As Linda Borg of the Providence Journal reported, Taveras and the Providence school board moved last week to dismiss all of Providence district school teachers. (See the report below.)

All 1,926 of the city’s district school teachers.

Every teacher received a certified letter from the School Department on Thursday informing them that they might be terminated at the end of the school year. It also said the School Board would vote on the proposed dismissals at Thursday night’s meeting, which was moved to the Providence Career and Technical Academy to accommodate the huge turnout.

Teachers’ reactions were as you might expect them to be:

“This is a quasi-legal power grab,” said Richard Larkin, a teacher at Classical High School. “You want to pick and choose teachers. Well, we will not be bullied.”

Speaker after speaker demanded to know why they were being fired. Didn’t the teachers union sign on to the federal Race to the Top initiative? Hasn’t the union collaborated with Supt. Tom Brady on new curricula? Isn’t the union working with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers on a new teacher evaluation?

“I’m feeling disrespected, devalued and marginalized,” said Ed Gorden. “Termination is a career-ender. You are putting a scarlet letter on every one of us.”

But the mayor is facing a $40-million school budget deficit in a district that serves fewer than 24,000 students (PK-12). Taveras and the school committee are not laying the teachers off. They are firing them, which allows them to circumvent seniority bumping rules, whereby teachers will be called back to work on the basis of their years of tenure. This move allows school leaders to select teachers they think are the most effective.

Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith

called the terminations “an attack on labor and an attack on collective bargaining.”

“This is a back-door Wisconsin,” Smith said, referring to the weeklong protests in Madison by labor unions. “We don’t know why we’re being fired. The mayor says he needs flexibility. Can you buy that? I don’t know of any other district that has done this.”

Thursday night, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the possible dismissals “shocking,” and said the move will “disrupt the education of all students and the entire community.”

So, you think Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is blowing smoke? This crisis is not going away, and it is going to hit Massachusetts cities in much the same way it is hitting Providence. After all, their tax receipts are in rough shape, their housing markets are still reeling, and the level of business activity in, say, Fall River and Holyoke is worse than in Providence.

Federal stimulus is gone. And the FY2012 Massachusetts state budget is again going to cut back on local aid.

Buckle up. It’s going to be rough ride.