Anti-Union Mood Grows In Tenn. Legislature

fromWPLN

In Tennessee, Republicans control the legislatures and the governor's office. The GOP majority wants to strip all bargaining power from teachers unions.

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BLAKE FARMER: I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville where Tea Party groups are celebrating a new anti-union mood.

(Soundbite of applause)

FARMER: At a gathering of conservative activists, former school teacher Frances Arthur says she was part of a union.

Ms. FRANCES ARTHUR (former school teacher): I really think that, at one time in our nation's history, there was a use for unions. But today I just don't believe that any more. I think that they have overstayed their welcome.

FARMER: Instead of limiting their role, Tennessee's debate is more fundamental. State Senator Jack Johnson has legislation that strips all bargaining power from teachers unions. His motivation is more about reforming education than saving money.

Senator JACK JOHNSON (Tennessee State Senate): Well, I ask our teachers, is repeal of collective bargaining too high a price to pay for the betterment of our teachers and our kids? I say there is no price too high.

FARMER: Johnson's bill passed out of committee along party lines. Unlike in Wisconsin and Ohio, it's the enlarged GOP majority in the legislature leading this push, not Tennessee's new Republican governor. Collecting tickets at a basketball game, high school teacher Terry Strickland says he understands that teachers unions have an image problem, but still, he's optimistic.

Mr. TERRY STRICKLAND (high school teacher): I feel like things will work themselves out I'm a strong believer in the union. I just hope the unions and things don't get thrown out.

FARMER: Strikes and protests aren't yet part of Tennessee's collective bargaining battle. But the legislation has been a wakeup call, and not just for teachers. Robert Weaver heads the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville.

Mr. ROBERT WEAVER (Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville): We have wanted bargaining rights akin to what teachers have, and we've felt that those rights were valuable for all public employees.

FARMER: Public sector unions will hold a press conference today to show solidarity.

Unidentified Child: Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?

FARMER: Away from the state capitol, Mary McClanahan is unloading the last of her daughter's Thin Mints and Tagalongs. She sees a role for unions in voicing grievances and negotiating pay.

Ms. MCCLANAHAN: But I also think that teacher unions have allowed us to have teachers who no longer put forth their best efforts.

FARMER: McClanahan says she can see both sides of this issue. But Tennessee lawmakers are being forced to choose one. And with a solid Republican majority, those wanting to reduce the power of teachers unions have the upper hand.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.

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