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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

For Democrats, there was a flash of optimism in off-year election results this week. Voters in Ohio soundly rejected Republican Governor John Kasich's plan to scale back collective bargaining rights for public employees. The vote was a big victory for labor. In particular, it illustrated the importance of the nation's teachers' unions well beyond the classroom. As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, teachers groups are mobilizing like never before because they face threats to their very existence.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Teachers unions joined a coalition of workers to produce the ads that helped defeat Issue 2 in Ohio.

UNKNOWN FEMALE: How dare those politicians and lobbyists and special interest insiders attack the people who teach our children for a living.

ABRAMSON: Labor spent millions on the referendum which overturned restrictions on collective bargaining. According to Kim Anderson of the National Education Association, her teacher's group contributed the lion's share.

KIM ANDERSON: We did, more than ten million.

ABRAMSON: The NEA says it's the biggest labor union in 48 states with more than three million members nationwide. Those numbers help build a big war chest, and Anderson says it also means the NEA could contribute lots of foot soldiers to the Ohio fight.

ANDERSON: Folks from at least 20 state affiliates that went into Ohio on their own volition because they wanted to help.

ABRAMSON: They're coming because these collective bargaining fights threaten some unions' very existence. The issue has become more urgent since Wisconsin public workers lost a fight over collective bargaining rights earlier this year. As a result, some locals lost the ability to collect dues automatically from paychecks, and now hundreds of teachers locals in Wisconsin must hold elections to say whether they still want the union to represent them. That's why the Tuesday results in Ohio were important. So was a small but important victory in Michigan.

There the Michigan Education Association mounted a successful recall campaign against the state representative who symbolized the Republican effort to cut spending and limit union power. Doug Pratt is spokesman for the MEA.

DOUG PRATT: They spent more time vilifying unions and attacking the middle class of this state than they have putting people back to work. That's not what they were sent to Lansing to do, and voters are going to hold them accountable for that.

ABRAMSON: Former representative Paul Scott, the victim of the recall says he expected a response from Labor, but he was surprised when the union focused its organizing efforts on a recall.

FORMER REPRESENTATIVE PAUL SCOTT REPUBLICAN, MICHIGAN: You're talking about the most entrenched and well-financed government employee union in any state; it's going to be the teachers' union. They just immediately went toward my community and then started protests.

ABRAMSON: The union targeted other lawmakers for recall, but those efforts failed. Displays of union power just give new ammunition to the growing number of anti-union groups and websites like teachersunionexposed.com. Justin Wilson says his website tries to uncover how labor protects ineffective teachers from being fired.

JUSTIN WILSON: To actually get a hold of proceedings where teachers have been disciplined to sort of get to the very bottom of how many teachers in the country are terminated, working their onerous collective bargaining agreements that make it nearly impossible.

ABRAMSON: This summer the National Education Association increased dues by $10. Some of that money will be directed at preserving bargaining rights. Wisconsin teachers are also pushing for their own recall effort against Governor Walker. These are all expensive battles, but for teachers' unions they're a matter of life and death. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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