It rained last Saturday. Rained all day. Started early in the morning and never let up. Rained in Memphis. Rained in Nashville. Rained up and down I-40, both ways, coming and going. But somehow 3,000 Tennessee teachers, union members, and sympathizers weren't deterred. They assembled in Nashville on the Bicentennial Mall as scheduled. They marched up to War Memorial Plaza as planned. And they rallied right up to 3 p.m., just like they said they would.
They made the case against a series of laws pending in the Tennessee General Assembly and likely to be passed, some of them this very week. Among the pieces of legislation on tap are a bill to deprive teachers' associations of the collective bargaining rights they've enjoyed for decades; a bill to abolish dues check-off privileges the associations have enjoyed just as long; a bill to transfer the power to make appointments of teachers to the state's Consolidated Retirement System from teachers themselves to politicians; and, finally, a bill to ban campaign contributions by teachers' unions or any other sort of public-employees' unions — this at a time when the John Roberts Supreme Court has licensed corporations to make such contributions out the wazoo, virtually without limit.
All these would-be laws are products of the coalition of Republican ideologues and arch-conservatives and Tea Partiers who have taken over the Tennessee General Assembly. This coalition proved it could work in lockstep during the first week of the current session when it railroaded through, on a party-line vote, the now famous, or infamous, Norris-Todd bill that signaled the imminent return of new special school districts in Tennessee, banned since 1982 but, soon enough, to be permitted for Shelby County alone.
The coalition recorded another success this week when it passed something called the "Tennessee Health Care Freedom Act," legislation that presumes to exempt Tennessee from abiding by the requirements of last year's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — odious requirements such as making sure that insurors cannot deny health insurance to someone on the basis of a prior medical condition.
The rationale behind all these laws is elusive. Last week, we commented on the Orwellian aspect of some of the reasons given for passing them — how the GOP legislators said restrictions on teachers' associations would be good for the teachers and not bad, how it would be easier for teachers to have their voices heard, not more difficult. And so forth. It is all reminiscent of something we learned about in school: the English Poor Law of 1834, which, despite its name, did not provide additional relief to the indigent but shunted them into workhouses while, in theory, reducing taxes on English society at large. Anybody who wonders how that worked out hasn't read enough Dickens.
The teachers and union people who gathered in the rain in Nashville last Saturday proved one thing — that they are prepared to stand up for themselves. Last week, we wondered in this space about a "passion deficit." No longer.