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What Matters Most

by AFT President Randi Weingarten

A Clash of Priorities
NY Times, April 3, 2011

Years of state budget shortfalls have resulted in devastating cuts to public services. Another consequence of the economic downturn has been the efforts of some governors to scapegoat public employees for budget problems they didn’t create—and to change the subject from the effects of the cuts officials are enacting.

Teachers, nurses, firefighters, many other public workers and their allies are fighting to preserve high-quality public services, and are challenging those—such as the governors in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere—who claim public employees and their right to collectively bargain are a cause of state fiscal problems. There is no relationship between states whose employees have bargaining rights and states that have big deficits. In fact, the cynical overreaching by these governors reveals a great irony: Collective bargaining is not the cause of state budget crises, but it can be a part of the solution.

In a speech last week sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, I challenged officials who sell reckless measures as necessary expediencies in desperate times. In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker and his political allies rammed through legislation to strip workers of their rights, even though the state’s public employees had agreed to massive pay cuts and every proposed concession. Similar situations are looming in other states.

Union workers didn’t cause this mess, but we’re willing to do our part to clean it up. Public employees have made many economic sacrifices to help mitigate the damage to vital public services. And teachers and other public workers have identified ways to cut costs while maintaining high-quality services. A group of teachers in Brooklyn, for example, designed a system to access students’ academic information that works far better, for a fraction of the cost, than a system the city sank more than $80 million into.

Similar frontline wisdom is being seen throughout the country. Teachers unions and school administrators in districts from New York to California are partnering to keep the effects of major budget cuts as far away from children and classrooms as possible. Public employee unions are pushing for states to close their tax gaps—money that businesses and individuals owe in taxes but fail to pay—which studies show could generate tens of billions of dollars each year. And teachers and their unions are calling attention to the problem of chronic teacher turnover—which has been shown to have a $7.3 billion price tag annually and unknowable educational costs for students.

Our country can’t cut our way to great public schools and effective public services. These are not only priorities for flush times; they’re necessities at all times. And, as more families and communities are made fragile by years of economic crises, the services public employees provide—such as early childhood education, job training, ensuring the safety of food and water supplies, and responding to crises—are needed more than ever.

This is a time for our nation to turn to public employees, instead of turning against them. But we can’t do it all. To govern is to choose—and governors across the country are making damaging choices.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Walker has called for $200 million in tax cuts, and has proposed $1.7 billion in cuts to education. In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder is proposing to cut corporate taxes by $1.8 billion, while cutting public education by $470 per pupil. And in Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Corbett has proposed up to $400 million in corporate tax breaks, while calling for education to be cut by $1.2 billion. That’s not shared responsibility.

One thing we’ve learned over the past few months is that it’s relatively easy to balance budgets if you’re willing to unbalance everything else—public services, jobs, the middle class and investments in the future. What’s hard is preserving essential services and ensuring that the cuts we make today don’t haunt us for years—or generations—to come. We have everything to gain by trying a more cooperative approach to resolving our budget problems.

I invite you to read the full text of my speech at

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