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Union teachers are feeling the heat at the State Capitol.

On the heels of Wisconsin's volatile debate over collective bargaining rights, Minnesota Republican lawmakers are waging a fierce campaign to scale back the scope and power of the state's teachers union. They say change is needed in part to stop teacher pay increases from consuming precious dollars in cash-strapped school districts.

Three bills winding through the Legislature would prevent teachers from striking in some fashion, while others would limit negotiating time and impose a two-year pay freeze.

"We've got a structure that continues to raise the cost of employment, the cost of teaching, without any connection at all to any improvement in results," said Assistant Senate Majority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie. Hann, a sponsor of many bills targeted at the teachers union, said he does not believe public employees ought to unionize at all.

Roseville Rep. Mindy Greiling, a ranking DFLer on the House Education Committee, said the bills were like "Chinese water torture against collective bargaining."

It's not just bargaining. Other bills would virtually eliminate teacher tenure and would offer private school vouchers to students at failing public schools.

The teachers union, Education Minnesota, has built strong alliances among DFL lawmakers at the Capitol and its political action committee spent about $2 million in the last election. But new GOP majorities are packed with legislators who believe the union has grown too powerful at the expense of school districts and taxpayers.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher argues that the multifaceted effort is a "solution looking for a problem," because teachers' strikes are rare and some locals are already negotiating pay freezes on their own. Plus, the union notes, average teacher salary in Minnesota ranks about 20th in the nation.

But bill supporters assert the proof is in the numbers. School districts often spend about 80 percent of their budgets on employee costs -- including non-teachers. Data compiled by the Minnesota Business Partnership show that teacher salaries and benefits have risen faster than state per-pupil funding levels for eight years. Some districts that freeze base pay, such as Anoka-Hennepin, still allow for increases based on education and experience.

Bill sponsors say it's simple: Unions are pressuring school boards to spend money they don't have. If parties can't agree by the Jan. 15 contract deadline, the school incurs a financial penalty.

"If one side of the bargaining unit has both the power to negotiate and strike, what tools does the school board have?" said Senate Education Committee Chair Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, at a committee meeting last week.

Dooher said the ability to strike is integral to fair negotiations. "Your leverage is your service," he said. "And if you can't withhold your service then you don't have any power at the table."

A variety of proposals

The Senate already passed freshman Sen. Dave Thompson's bill imposing a two-year wage freeze on school employees and preventing them from striking over it. "This bill's about putting the fire out," the Lakeville Republican said in January.

One of Hann's more stringent proposals, which he calls the "nuclear weapon in employee relations," would bar teachers from striking, grouping them with "essential" employees such as police and firefighters. Negotiations where no agreement is reached would be sent to binding arbitration. Twenty-two states already prohibit teachers from striking, according to the Education Commission of the States.

The union showed up at a committee hearing Monday to protest that proposal.

"Without question, this bill strips teachers of collective bargaining rights as they know them," testified Education Minnesota lobbyist Jan Alswager. Hann's bill, which passed through committee Monday, would limit negotiations to summer months, when school is out.

Olson and freshman Rep. Branden Petersen, R-Andover, introduced a bill with bipartisan support last week to evaluate teachers on a tiered system and change "tenure" to five-year contract periods, after which their status would be reassessed. The union says that effectively eliminates tenure, a status granted to most teachers after a probationary period that protects them from dismissal.

"You don't have the de facto life contract anymore," Petersen said of his bill.

Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, defended a proposal before Olson's committee last week that would bar teachers from striking over wages if their increase was no more than the state per-pupil funding increase -- which has been stuck at zero for two years.

"So many times these negotiations turn into a strike threat," Rosen said. "And then they end up negotiating and bargaining for something that they can't afford."

Freshman Rep. Kelby Woodard, R-Belle Plaine, is resurrecting a controversial, long-simmering voucher proposal that would give poor parents money toward a private education if their public school is failing.

Dayton the goalie?

Should the bills pass, they could run headlong into opposition by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, who has said he supports unions and who takes a dim view of vouchers.

"The working man's and woman's basic right to organize, to bargain collectively over their wages, benefits and safe working conditions, will not be taken away here, because I'm here," Dayton heralded last month during a Capitol labor rally.

Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, said bills in Minnesota reflect similar trends nationwide.

"What we're seeing around the country are efforts to limit collective bargaining under the guise of trying to repair or fix budget shortfalls," Bass said.

Dayton has repeatedly told crowds that "this is not Wisconsin" because there is a Democratic governor. Public employees pay more for their benefits in Minnesota than do their colleagues in Wisconsin.

"I think they're applying Wisconsin's battle to Minnesota," Greiling said. "But our union people have already lost over here."

Eric Roper • 651-222-1210