Teachers Union Hits Shumlin on Strike Comments | Off Message

Teachers Union Hits Shumlin on Strike Comments


Updated at 3:11 p.m.

The state's largest labor union is demanding a meeting with Gov. Peter Shumlin over remarks the union says "demoralized" its members.

In a letter sent Wednesday to the two-term Democrat, Vermont-National Education Association president Martha Allen said the governor should have refrained from speaking out against teacher strikes last week as South Burlington teachers walked the picket line. 

Shumlin told Vermont Public Radio's Taylor Dobbs that teachers should be barred from striking and that both parties should be subject to binding arbitration. 

"When you see what's going on in a community like South Burlington, the people that get hurt are the kids, the moms and the dads who suddenly have no place for their kids to go during the day," he said at the time. 

In her letter to Shumlin, Allen said the governor struck the wrong tone at the wrong time.

"Your statement regarding teachers strikes did not help the situation, and it left me wondering why you chose to make that statement in the midst of the strike when you could easily have said that the teachers were exercising their rights and it was inappropriate to speak on the issue at that time," she wrote.

After a four-day strike last week, the first-ever in the district, the teachers came to an agreement with the school board Sunday night and resumed teaching Monday.

"Our teachers were demoralized when they heard your words," Allen wrote, arguing that they chose to strike as a last resort. "You may be supportive of the collective bargaining process, but it appeared otherwise to our teachers and the general public."

Shumlin’s support for binding arbitration is not a new position. In a statement responding to the union’s letter Wednesday, he said he has “consistently favored a policy that requires both sides to seek agreement, and be subject to a process for resolution when no agreement can be reached. That seems fair to teachers and management.”

“No one wins with a strike, not students, not teachers, not board members, not taxpayers,” he continued. “While I don’t take sides in these situations, I believe a strike is a good time to remind people that there are other ways for us to accomplish the same goals without negatively impacting our students.”

Calling the situation "a very serious issue" that "must be addressed," Allen said she hoped to meet with the governor before Election Day, which is less than two weeks away. 

Allen did not, however, threaten to withdraw the Vermont-NEA's endorsement, which was bestowed on Shumlin in August. Even then, the union appeared to back the incumbent Democrat with some trepidation. In its endorsement announcement, the Vermont-NEA criticized "his dangerous rhetoric about school spending [which] contributed to dozens of budget defeats this year." 

In Wednesday's letter, Allen said her members "are wondering why, when Vermont-NEA has recommended your reelection, we are still supporting you financially and otherwise. They are asking us if you really do respect the profession and our union." 

According to Darren Allen, the Vermont-NEA's spokesman, only the union's board of directors can withdraw an endorsement, and its members are not scheduled to meet until November 1, just three days before the election. 

"Martha wants to have that conversation with the governor," he says. "We are confident that and hopeful that the governor will take the time to give Martha a call so he understands where we're coming from."

In addition to endorsing Shumlin, the union's national organization has contributed $1.15 million this year to the Democratic Governors Association, which Shumlin chairs. It also contributed $115,000 last winter to Vermont Leads, an advocacy group dedicated to passing Shumlin's single-payer health care reform plan. 

Darren Allen did not indicate that future contributions to Vermont Leads would be jeopardized by the governor's rhetoric.

"Vermont-NEA's board has made its commitment to [single-payer] explicitly clear," he says. "That is an issue that would't matter which governor was pushing the issue. It stands on its own."

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