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Teachers Bury The Hatchet For Home Stretch

Teachers unions aren’t happy with major Democrats, but are burying the hatchet with the party ahead of the midterm elections.

In states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are eagerly spending millions and mobilizing thousands of members to topple Republican governors who have cut collective bargaining rights, promoted charter schools and otherwise made union members’ lives less pleasant.

What’s more notable, however, is the major effort being made in other states to protect Democrats whose efforts to reform schools or balance the budget have left teachers disappointed or even infuriated.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten stumped this weekend in Illinois for embattled Governor Pat Quinn, whose race against challenger Bruce Rauner is going down to the wire.

Although a Democrat, Quinn represents the sort of leader unions would like to see less of, one who cares less about pleasing organized labor and more about balancing the state’s books.

One of Quinn’s premier legislative accomplishment during four years in office is a major overhaul of the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System, which is raising teachers’ minimum retirement age by five years in an effort to address a massive $56 billion in unfunded liabilities. The overhaul also slashes annual cost of living raises for teachers and prohibits collective bargaining on most pension-related matters.

These changes understandably distressed teachers, and they collaborated with other jilted public sector unions to sue the state, arguing the new law is unconstitutional. The lawsuit, which is still ongoing, put teachers in a difficult spot. Having been harmed so greatly by their nominal Democratic allies, the temptation was high for them to sit out Quinn’s reelection effort.

Ultimately, however, the potential hazards of such a daring move have proven too intimidating. Rauner has made no secret of how he views public sector unions, once labeling them “financial tumors,” meaning teachers have every reason to expect four years under him to be far worse than any policies Quinn may pursue.

In addition, if teachers chose to sit this election out, and Quinn were to win anyway, it would prove deeply damaging to teachers’ reputation as a key piece of the Democratic coalition. If one major Democratic politician can alienate teachers and win anyway, it will invite others to do so in the future, and teachers could see their political influence decline precipitously.

And so, ultimately, teachers have given in, and contributed their full strength to keeping Quinn in office despite their poor relations with him. In addition to campaign work, they’ve played a key role in closing the money gap between Quinn and the wealthy Rauner. Combined, teachers have given over $5 million to Quinn’s campaign. Thousands of rank and filed members have come to the fore as well, providing a massive get out the vote effort for Quinn in the campaign’s final weeks.

In Colorado, a similar situation is in play, as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has incurred union displeasure by batting off an attempted lawsuit that challenged a state law reforming tenure and increasing the use of standardized tests in evaluations. Despite the spat, National Education Association president Lily Eckelsen Garcia made a stop in the Centennial State last week as part of one last flurry of campaigning. On Monday, she’s stopping in Maryland to support Democrat Anthony Brown for the governor’s mansion, even though he was Lt. Governor when outgoing Gov. Martin O’Malley took an axe to state pensions.

Lastly, Connecticut is proving to be one of the strongest tests of union commitment to forgiving past slights for the greater Democratic cause. Incumbent Dannel Malloy has never fully recovered from a 2011 threat to fire teachers en masse over a budget dispute and 2012 remarks in which he demeaned teachers’ work ethic.

While the local branches of both the AFT and NEA have endorsed him, those endorsements came rather late and without much enthusiasm at the local level. But with Malloy now neck-and-neck with Republican Tom Foley, teachers have stepped up to save the embattled governor. Weingarten rallied the troops in a campaign visit last week, and earlier AFT gave over $500,000 to a group backing Malloy’s campaign.

Not every Democrat has benefited from teachers’ enduring loyalty to the Democratic camp, however. Neither union leaders nor dollars are headed to Rhode Island, where candidate Gina Raimondo is paying the price for her role as state treasurer in spearheading 2011 pension cuts.

In contrast to other major races, the Rhode Island affiliates of both the AFT and NEA have refused to make any endorsement; in the separate lieutenant gubernatorial race, Republican Catherine Taylor actually got the nod, underscoring the total breakdown of trust between Democrats in the state and a labor movement that feels it has little more to lose.

Should the election, which is surprisingly close, turn into a Republican upset while Democrats pull through in other states, teachers will send a message that they remain a formidable force that Democrats can ill afford to gravely offend.

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