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GOP courts union support, but not when it comes to teachers

Calls to 'break the back' of unions whose heads joined Jill Biden Thursday

Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said Republican hostility toward teachers "is the worst I've ever seen."
Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said Republican hostility toward teachers "is the worst I've ever seen." (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republicans have taken a more favorable view of labor unions in recent years, but that hasn’t stopped the party from attacking unionized teachers at the recent GOP presidential debate, with one candidate vowing to “break the back” of the teachers’ unions.

In the most recent results of the Gallup Social Series published ahead of Labor Day, support for unions is highest among Democrats and lowest among Republicans. Support among Republicans was 47 percent, down from 56 percent in the same poll a year ago but broadly on an upward trajectory since 2009, when it stood at  29 percent.

The Republican Party has sought to recalibrate its brand in the Donald Trump era, courting working class voters and even making a play for union endorsements. Earlier this summer, Trump released a video asking the United Auto Workers for its support. (The union has yet to publicly back a candidate, but it endorsed Joe Biden in 2020.)

Yet the GOP’s overtures toward unionized workers does not extend to educators, who form a broad swath of the unionized workforce and remain one of the party’s top targets. That’s probably in no small part because of GOP disapproval of the state of public education as well as the unions’ strong alliance with the Democratic Party.

Fully 74 percent of those the pollsters described as Republicans and Republican-leaning independents were either somewhat or completely dissatisfied with educational quality, another survey by Gallup found.

The GOP’s animosity toward teachers’ unions was on full display last month, when Republican presidential candidates held their first debate. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused unionized teachers of “putting themselves before our kids” and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said breaking the back of teachers’ unions is the only way to change education. The unions, Scott added, “are standing in the doorhouse of our kids, locking them in failing schools, and locking them out of the greatest future they can have.”

‘Worst I’ve ever seen’

Republican attacks on teachers unions aren’t new, says Ruth Milkman,  a sociologist at CUNY Graduate Center in New York who studies labor movements. 

 “The core of this is simply the size of the teachers’ unions and their ability to support electoral campaigns on that basis that has put them in the Republican crosshairs,” Milkman said in an email. “This is not really new, it’s been the case for decades.”

Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat and a former teacher, elementary school principal and school board member, said Republicans’ hostility toward teachers’ unions and educators in general has ramped up in recent years. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen,” she said in an interview. Attacks on unionized teachers are part of a “GOP ploy to dismantle the public education system,” added Wilson, who sits on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

That strategy was behind an effort by Republicans in the House to advance a “parents bill of rights,” Wilson said. “They’re going after the teachers, they’re going after the teachers’ unions, and they’re not even thinking about the shortage of teachers,’’ she said. “Every time they amplify these culture wars, we lose more and more teachers.”

‘Bosses’ vs. kids

The legislation, which cleared the chamber in the spring but is unlikely to come up in the Democrat-controlled Senate, was strongly opposed by teachers’ unions, who said it would drive a wedge between educators and parents.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., said shortly after the measure passed the House that it signifies a win for parents and kids and a setback for “union bosses.”

Scalise added: “The unions shouldn’t be fighting this every step of the way, but … they don’t want parents to have these rights.”

Union officials say Republicans are trying to convince the public that public school teachers are “woke” warriors seeking to “indoctrinate” children about transgender civil rights and the nation’s history of racial segregation.

Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, described the Republican agenda as “centered on attacking teachers, banning books, censoring history, diverting public school resources to unaccountable and discriminatory private schools through vouchers, and taking away student learning opportunities.”

“Students, parents, and educators deserve better,” she said. 

The NEA, which has close to 3 million members and is the nation’s largest professional employees union, endorsed Biden in April, just a week after he announced his reelection campaign. 

Jill Biden joins NEA, AFT heads

First Lady Jill Biden, who resumes her own work as a community college professor in Northern Virginia after Labor Day,  headlined a back-to-school ice cream social and rally in Wisconsin on Thursday with teachers, the leaders of the nation’s two large teachers’ unions and Democratic officials from the Badger State.

“Last week, on Maui, I spoke with teachers and administrators, counselors and librarians who have lost so much,” the first lady said  at an elementary school in Verona, Wis., speaking of the communities devastated by recent wildfires.

“When I turn on the TV, I see pundits attacking our public schools and saying that parents and educators are at odds. But that’s not what I see,” the first lady said. “I visited schools where parents and educators are working hand-in-hand to help kids overcome challenges and make learning better for everyone. There’s no divide between those who love our students and those who teach them, because we do both.”

Pringle and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten were there, and spoke ahead of Biden and elected officials.

“I am so proud that in this moment of time, when the extremists ban books, try to stop us from teaching honest history, that I have someone side-by-side who actually fights this fight and lifts up all of us as she does,” Weingarten said in what she said was a rare chance to introduce her NEA counterpart Pringle.

Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who is up for reelection in a race rated Lean Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, also spoke.

“In the face of repeated attacks on organized labor in states like Wisconsin, AFT and NEA keep showing up to do the work on behalf of their membership,” said Baldwin, who is now chair of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“As some of my colleagues in Congress continue to push for cuts to public education, I’m committed to fighting for the resources our students need to be successful. Whether it be funding for career education, helping them feel safe at school, or support for school-based mental health services,” Baldwin said. “I am also committed to supporting our educators with increased pay and benefits and a seat at the bargaining table, and improved working conditions.”