St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Wisconsin Public Teacher's Unions -- A personal history

Let’s Stick it to the Union

Down here in the Deep South, the news is full the turmoil all over the world as people rise up against rule by dictators and their families. You can hardly turn on the news without seeing pictures of huge crowds protesting in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya etc. People seem to have been successful in their protests in all the places except for Wisconsin, where the Fitzgerald, Koch and Walker families seem firmly entrenched. For idealogical reasons, they have taken a budget balance problem and turned it into an attack on public unions. As a former teacher and thus a public union member, I got bothered enough to try to explain, from my own experience, how public unions came about and why they are so important to their members. Get ready for a teaching moment!

Back in 1973, I became a school teacher. It was very hard to find a teaching job in those years with all the baby boomers coming into the market. I had a degree from River Falls in Physics and Math, and had spent another two years in grad school at UW Madison learning how to be a teacher and getting certified. Margo and I sent out 100s of applications to schools in the Midwest, and finally got an interview and then a job on Washington Island, WI., the smallest school district in the state of Wisconsin, out in Lake Michigan.

Washington Island was the most property rich school district in Wisconsin (dozens lakeshore mansions owned by absentee Chicago and Milwaukee millionaires), but the school district paid the lowest wages in the whole state; levying the lowest property tax rate in the whole state. “The rich people might not come here in the summer if we raise their taxes,” was the school board’s argument for continuing to use their two-room 100 year old schoolhouse with a few lean-tos tacked on.

There were only a half dozen teachers K-12, some of them part time. My salary was $7,000 for 9 months of teaching. I had 4.8% of my salary withheld for the Wisconsin Retirement fund and the school board contributed a matching 4.8% in my name. I had no other benefits including no health insurance. They offered the same salary for the next year. Costs of everything were about 30% higher on the island than the mainland—really impossible to live on the salary.

Rodger Meyer, my HS physics teacher from St. Croix Falls explains salary negotiations back in the 60’s. “When I started teaching we had to go before the school board individually to plead for a raise in wages, which were pathetic. Some farmer on the board would moan and groan and say, ‘You are asking for more than I’m making.’ Our teacher’s organization was run by the school superintendent and the school board (management). When I got involved in trying to form a teachers union without management, the school board wanted to fire me.”

Not being able to live on my Island salary and with Margo expecting, I searched around for other teaching jobs with health benefits and managed to find one on the mainland, at Goodman, WI, a lumbermill town on Highway 8 near the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. My salary was $7800 and I had some health benefits. I stayed at Goodman for three years and in that time became a member of the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers, a branch of the American Federation of Teachers. The AFT was one of two teachers unions in Wisconsin; a very small one compared to the Wisconsin Education Association union.

I was chosen a member of the teachers bargaining team. We held meetings with the school board and administrator on a new contract every two years. Most of our negotiations were over pay, benefits and working conditions. We decided, at Goodman, with the agreement of the school board, that instead of a raise over one two-year contract, the district would pay both their 4.8% and our 4.8% pension contributions. As I remember that way gave some tax benefits. We paid all of our health insurance (in those days the whole cost was something like $50 per month). Next time we negotiated instead of a raise, the school would pay the health insurance, again for tax advantages. When I hear folks now complain that teachers get retirement and health benefits paid, you have to remember that was what both parties negotiated; these issues can be re-opened and changed at any contract renewal.

We did not have the right to strike. If we couldn’t come to an agreement with the school board, then there was nothing we could do. Teacher strikes were illegal in Wisconsin under the 1971 bargaining law that mandated good-faith bargaining on both sides of the table. However, there was nothing in the law that forced compliance for either party.
The old contract would just stay in effect.

It was very frustrating, because the school boards would tell us—there is no money or maybe there is $20,000 available more for the whole school next year and ask “How do you want to divide it?” and they meant that was what was available for new equipment, books, salaries, benefits etc. School boards believed this was bargaining in “good faith.” They could raise property taxes if they wanted to but that was done at the annual school meeting. The board could have explained the need for more money, but often chose to let the folks opposed to taxes of any kind dominate the meetings.

The 70s were a time of high inflation, and each year our buying power got less. A decent old mill house cost only $30,000 in Goodman, but the bank told us we couldn’t afford it based on their rule of a house should cost only 2 and one half times ones salary. Margo was home with our new baby and there were no jobs for her available anywhere nearby.

I liked teaching at Goodman. It was a smaller school, good teachers and decent (if old) facility. I just couldn’t afford to live on the wages. We teachers looked to our union to help us out by giving us a stronger voice at the bargaining table.

Gaylord Nelson pushed through a bill in Wisconsin that public workers including teachers had the right to organize and negotiate contracts for their labor back in 1959, but with no right to strike there was no way to force school districts or other governments to settle—they could just stall if they chose to, and many did.

From 1970-1977, there were 30 Wisconsin teacher strikes (and over 100 public employee strikes) that occurred including the infamous Hortonville strike of two years length where 84 teachers were fired. . These strikes were illegal, and often ended in strikers losing their jobs, but they continued. With the increasing number of strikes and labor problems with teachers and other public employees, many legislators were beginning to think about improving the process.

The big Wisconsin teachers union, WEA, joined with the AFT and started lobbying the state legislature for a bargaining process that gave teachers (and other public employees) a more even chance at negotiations. I was selected from my school to go to a meeting with our local Assembly representative and, with the WEA representative, talk to her about the problems and our proposed solution, binding arbitration.

“We have run into a real dead end in our ability to bargain with local school districts. They don’t have any reason to negotiate; if they do nothing they win. We are very frustrated with this, and you can see the result; strikes by teachers, even when they know it is illegal and they could be fired. We are to the point where it is strike or quit teaching and get better paying job.”

“We are proposing this: We negotiate until both the board and union are stopped at their last offer. The state appoints a neutral mediator to come in and try to move along further negotiations. If the mediator certifies that there is no hope for an agreement then we each make a written last best offer that is submitted to a panel of three persons for arbitration. One arbitrator comes from the union; one from the school board and one from a pool of independent, neutral state arbitrators. The arbitrators are only allowed to choose one plan exactly as it was submitted—no changes allowed, by a majority vote.”

“We think that forcing each group to submit its last best offer, knowing it will be take it or leave it by the arbitrators, will force each side to move closer together, and that in most cases, when this last offer is presented, one side or the other will take it right then.”

Well, that passed in 1977, with the vote of our representative (a Republican) and it worked pretty much the way we figured it would. Teachers or school boards, seeing each other’s real last offer often did take it. When the process went all the way to arbitration, it did help the lowest paid districts, because the arbitrators tended to look at the surrounding school districts for comparisons in making the decision. Strikes disappeared. Since 1978, there have been no public employee work disruptions in Wisconsin and for the most part, governments and workers have gotten along smoothly.

Well, I moved on to Amery Wisconsin in 1978 and taught in the High School there. A bigger school meant more money ($10,000). The first year was great. I liked the larger school, and the innovative spirit amongst the teachers and administrative staff. It was an excellent school district, and I lived close enough to Dad and Mom that I figured I could afford a house—of course it would be on their land and with wood from our forest and sawmill, but at least a chance to own a home of our own!

Well, my teaching career hit a snag in February 12, 1980, a Tuesday, at 1:30 pm. My afternoon Math 9 class had 35 students (way too many!). A normally quiet student, Don (not his real name) , a small, skinny, shaggy, shy boy started talking in the class, seemingly to no one, just talking loudly. His voice was slurred and I couldn’t understand anything he said. It was totally out of character for him.

“What’s wrong Don?” I asked. “Nothing, …,” with some more unintelligible stuff. “Do you want to go to the sick room and talk to the nurse?” He shook his head no, but got up and sort of lurched across the room and out the door. A student said “He and his friends were doing drugs at noon.” I followed him out the door into the hall. I asked “Are you on drugs?” He looked at me, as if he planned to say something, and then pulled back his right hand, made a fist and hit me squarely on the jaw. I was shocked; it was totally unexpected. It didn’t hurt, as he seemed to have little strength in his arm. “Don, whatever is wrong, you won’t fix it by hitting me. You go down to the office right now and tell the principal what happened.” This happened in sight of many of the students.

I talked to the principal after class. “I think he is on drugs. It is totally out of his character, and I didn’t provoke him at all.” The principal had sent him to the sick room. He called a meeting with the parents, both working full time, with the husband on the road most of the time as a salesman. A few days latter we met. The parents took the position, very insistently, that it must have been my fault, as their son just couldn’t have just hit a teacher. I told them of my suspicion he was on drugs. They got angry and accused me of making accusations without any proof. Don was given detention for two weeks (had to stay after school for an hour), and stayed in my class. I was upset after the verbal raking over from the parents and felt the principal had not stuck up for me. Why was I left feeling guilty for a kid punching me. There was no question that I had touched Don at all or provoked him, as several students who had seen it all told the principal in interviews as I was investigated.

That weekend, I searched the Twin Cities job ads in the newspapers. I updated my resume and wrote a glowing letter about my imagined and real experience in computers and shot off an application for a computer scientist job at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. I finished the school year, got the new job and left my career in teaching, shaking the dust off my feet on the way out. I look back and am actually grateful for Don’s punching me into a better job than teaching. My pay immediately doubled! Sadly, Don was in county court within a year and now 30 years later is still trying to get his life free from drugs and the problems they caused to him and his family.

Getting an education is how we poor farm kids made it into the lower part of the middle class. Many of us went into teaching, thinking it honorable profession; a respected way of making a modest living. We knew if we stuck by it for 35 years, we would get a modest pension. Luckily, our pension money went into an account that politicians couldn’t touch—so in Wisconsin our pension fund is totally funded. I even get a small amount each month from my 6 years of teaching—the money gaining interest over the 30 years it was invested in the account. The depression starting in 2008 dropped the amount I get from the investment, but, unlike in many states where pensions are badly underfunded, the independent retirement fund is sound.

I think it was wrong headed of Governor Walker and the Republicans to attempt to change the bargaining laws for public employees without first asking them to help solve the problem. Public employees are truly our neighbors, friends and relatives, not our enemy. Many of our local farmers and business owners depend on a public employee spouse for health insurance for them and their kids. Public employee unions should have been given a chance to help solve the problem. They are not our enemy! Wisconsin’s new political leaders seem to have two core principles: tax cuts for the wealthy and wage cuts for everyone else.

What few decent jobs that are still available to us will soon disappear if politicians continue to attack unions and workers. Remember, the only reason why workers have things like health care, pensions, 8-hour days, minium wages, workplace safety, unemployment insurance, and a say in their wages is because unions have fought the battles for everyone for the past 100 years. Without the things won for us by unions, we would all be fighting for a greeter’s job at Bigmart or flipping burgers nearby right up to the day we went to the poor house.