Wisconsin Teachers Unions Weakened, Demoralized

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Blake Neff Reporter
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Teachers union members feel demoralized by the Wisconsin supreme court’s decision to uphold Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law.

The case was organized labor’s last hope of undoing the law through the courts, after an effort at the federal level had already been rejected. If Walker is reelected and Republicans are buoyed by the midterms, it will be even harder to turn back the clock legislatively.

While supporters of Act 10 and Gov. Walker celebrate a law they say saves the state hundreds of million of dollars every year, opponents say that in just three short years it has already left the state’s teaching force smaller, less experienced, less qualified and less happy.

“The number of resignations from the teaching profession in Wisconsin is just over the top,” John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., the state capital’s teachers union, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Matthews, who described his union as a “politically active” one whose members often skipped work to protest Act 10, said resignations in the city were outpacing retirements for the first time ever, even though the union’s position, bolstered by the reliably blue voters of Dane County, was among the best in the state. Throughout the state, he said, where voters lean more Republican, the situation is grimmer for teachers.

At the heart of their discontent, he said, is the component of Act 10 which limits teacher pay increases to a certain percent over a district’s base teacher salary, without allowing teachers earning higher salaries to receive a proportionally higher raise.

“Everybody but the lowest-earning teachers will always be falling behind, losing their standard of living,” Matthews said.

The resulting indignities are not limited to lower pay and benefits.

“Some right-wing school districts have introduced 1960s-ish dress codes,” Matthews complained, pointing to rules mandating that teachers wear longer skirts and eschew jeans, open-toed shoes and other informal clothing.

Meanwhile, the law’s requirement that unions recertify annually through the approval of a majority of employees has made the task of organizing nearly impossible, an outcome Matthews describes as grossly unfair.

“We wouldn’t have a governor of Wisconsin if he had to be elected as unions have to recertify,” he said, pointing out that low turnout means that most elections have far less than 50 percent of registered voters actually casting ballots for a winning candidate. With unions broken apart, he said, the standard channels through which teachers have expressed their views on education policy have evaporated, leaving teachers less engaged.

Act 10’s weakening of teachers unions has been undeniably effective. Unable to compel the payment of dues and with little to negotiate over anymore, membership in the state’s teachers unions has plummeted. The statewide Wisconsin Education Association Council has fallen from nearly 100,000 members to only 60,000, while the state’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers has more than halved.

Matthews said that declining compensation, government hostility and a grim future were driving talent from the teaching profession at both ends. Veteran teachers are choosing to quit or retire early, while college students are choosing different fields. Those who remain in the profession, meanwhile, sometimes choose to relocate to Minnesota, Illinois or even the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Julie Underwood, dean at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, told TheDCNF her school’s experience bore that out. She said that more than 3,000 teachers abruptly left their jobs following Act 10’s passage, and said the school’s surveys of its alumni indicate that teachers have become much less satisfied with their profession. In 2009, she said, over 85 percent of surveyed alumni said they wanted to remain teachers for the rest of their careers.

“In 2013, that number was 39 percent,” she said. While reduced pay and benefits are one factor, she said a major factor for many teachers was greater hostility to their profession.

“The phrase you hear quite often is ‘teacher-bashing,” Underwood said. “People take this personally, not as a union issue.”

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