DETROIT (Reuters) - As representatives of America’s second-largest teachers union gather in Detroit for the start of a four-day convention, the stark prospects facing their 1.5 million members are right here in front of them.
In June, an official appointed by the state of Michigan imposed sweeping wage and benefit cuts on Detroit educators represented by the American Federation of Teachers as the debt-heavy, tax-deficient city struggles to maintain basic services.
The fiscal emergency, and the strain it is putting on public education, is hardly limited to “Motown” - though the measures taken here may have been more drastic. From Maine to Hawaii, public teachers are under pressure as politicians discover that wringing concessions from teachers to help close gaping budget holes is popular with voters.
“As the economic downturn goes on longer, the pain gets worse, insecurity builds up,” AFT president Randi Weingarten will tell the 3,000 delegates convening here, according to prewritten remarks. For politicians of all stripes, teachers and their pay and benefits have become “a big fat target,” Weingarten will say.
Across the country, public educators have been socked with pay freezes, furloughs and layoffs as well as demands that they pay more for their health and pensions.
Taxpayers, hammered by the economic recession of 2007-2009 and frustrated by the tepid recovery that followed, have turned hostile. In two of California’s biggest cities, voters last month supported new curbs on the pensions of city workers backed by their mayors.
“In the past, politicians running for mayor or governor would ask for the teachers’ endorsement and support,” said Gary Chaison, an industrial relations expert at the Graduate School of Management at Clark University.
“Now the opposite occurs. Now politicians gain their reputation by fighting with the teachers union.”
The pressures come even as the unionized teachers, long blamed by conservative critics for the poor performance of U.S. students, have dropped their opposition to the decades-old push to hold educators more accountable for what students learn.
The layoffs are eating into teacher union membership. The National Education Association, the biggest U.S. teachers union with 3.2 million members, acknowledged earlier this month that its ranks have dropped by 100,000 over the past two years. The NEA expects its membership to drop another 200,000 by 2014.
For the AFT, the decline appears much more limited. AFT disclosures with the Labor Department, which only include full dues-paying members, show it lost nearly 16,000 members between 2009 and 2011.
In her remarks, Weingarten will warn that the pressure on the AFT is putting the union’s “very existence” at stake.
Adding to the woes of the teachers unions: States and municipalities have promised benefits to retirees often without setting aside enough to cover their liabilities. When the stock markets stopped producing high returns on their assets and they saw their tax bases eroded as a result of the recession, shortfalls in pension funds started to rise.
Additionally, pension funds for state and local government workers, including teachers, are underfunded by as much as $3 trillion, according to a report released this month by the State Budget Crisis Task Force, a private, non-partisan group. Unfunded healthcare benefits for state and local retirees, including former teachers, add another $1 trillion to the bill, according to the task force.
“They getting hit on all fronts,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the liberal think tank The Century Foundation and the author of a biography of AFT former president Albert Shanker.
Historically, teachers and their deep-pocketed unions have been strong supporters of the Democratic Party. In the view of many critics, unionized teachers have used that support to influence lawmakers and win costly and unsustainable benefits and job protections despite the poor showing of their students.
This year, the AFT has endorsed the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, even though the administration has backed measures the union opposes.
But it is not clear how committed rank-and-file members are to helping get Obama a second term - or how much the White House cares. The administration is sending Vice President Joe Biden to address the conference, not the president himself.
“Obama didn’t go to the NEA convention either,” Kahlenberg said. “This is a very loyal constituency of the Democratic Party. Conservatives completely understand that, which is one of the reasons Walker went after them in Wisconsin”.
Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker