For unions in Wisconsin, a fast and hard fall since Act 10

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A couple weeks before the Nov. 8 election, 10 Milwaukee public school teachers staffed the phone bank at their union office with two goals in mind. Both involved winning.

The first aim was to help Democrat Russ Feingold regain the U.S. Senate seat he lost in the Republican wave of 2010.

The second was to persuade teachers to vote to recertify their union.

That vote, in its own way, was a measure of loss.

In that same 2010 election, Scott Walker and Republicans wrested the governor’s office and Legislature from Democrats. Despite intense opposition, within months they passed Act 10, which dramatically curtailed collective bargaining for most public employees, including teachers.

One particular twist in the law: Public-sector unions now have to win support from a majority of employees in the bargaining unit, not just a majority of those voting in the certification election. Every year. And that status allows them only to negotiate a sliver of what they could before — pay raises, capped by inflation.

For the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, winning recertification has not been difficult. The latest vote received 65% approval.

But the scene in the basement of the MTEA complex, five years after the passage of Act 10, was a reminder of the hard and fast fall organized labor has taken in Wisconsin.

Even as one of the stronger locals in the state, MTEA membership is down by about 30% since Act 10.

Nationally, no state has lost more of its labor union identity than Wisconsin since 2011, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis found. Union members made up 14.2% of workers before Act 10, but just 8.3% in 2015. That was nearly double the drop of Alaska, the runner up.

The bottom line: 132,000 fewer union members, mostly teachers and other public workers — enough to fill Lambeau Field and Miller Park, with thousands more tailgating outside.

The decline has put Wisconsin, the birthplace of public-employee unions, near the bottom third of states for unionized workforce. Southern and western states make up most of the lowest tier.

On a practical — and political — level, labor has less money to boost Democratic campaigns, and a diminished pool of foot soldiers to offer.

Its muscle was not able to secure a Wisconsin win for Feingold, or presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Nor has it been enough to block Walker in three elections, or to stop the continued depletion of Democratic lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly.

To labor leaders, Walker is the obvious villain, given his stated desire to conquer unions. In addition to Act 10, he signed a “right-to-work” measure blocking private employers and unions from requiring fees from workers.

But missteps by labor leaders and a backlash against union political clout helped set the stage for Act 10 years ago, the Journal Sentinel found after interviewing dozens of current and former union members and leaders. And even union leaders see dim prospects for a return to power anytime soon.

Dave Weiland, an Oconomowoc school district teacher and local union leader, thinks the state union was stuck in a 1920s mentality.

“The gravy train was running, and they didn’t see the curve,” he said.

Indeed, two years prior to Walker’s election, the state appeared to be moving in a different direction.

Bolstered by union might and money, Democrats swept to control of the state Capitol, then opened 20,000 more jobs to union representation and repealed limits on teacher compensation.

One group that got the power to organize: Home child-care workers — at a time when their industry was under scrutiny for fraud that cost taxpayers millions.

Two years later, Republicans were in charge.

History lessons

The passage of Act 10, despite an army of teachers leading weeks of demonstrations in Madison, was the latest swing in a 50-year power struggle over union power in the state.

In 1959, state lawmakers handed teachers collective bargaining rights they had not even sought. At the time, they were professionals without union organization rights.

From there, they quickly developed into a political juggernaut in the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by millions of dollars in dues payments.

At the Capitol, legislative leaders would kill bills if a lawmaker didn’t want a vote to anger the statewide Wisconsin Education Association Council, an arm of the National Education Association.

Trial lawyers, chiropractors, doctors, brewery workers, farmers and bankers — all were players, recalled Democrat Tom Loftus, Assembly speaker in the 1980s.

“Only the teachers are in every candidate’s hometown,” Loftus wrote in his book “The Art of Legislative Politics.”

A union history of the time put it this way: “It’s a bad idea to mess with teachers, public schools and WEAC.”

The confidence grew out of a quick rise.

“They went from a scooter to a Sherman tank,” said former Republican Senate leader Mike Ellis.

In the early years of collective bargaining, dozens of teacher strikes — illegal but unenforced — created enough chaos with school staffing to push state lawmakers of both parties to create a mediation-arbitration system to resolve disputes.

Under that system, approved in 1977, stalled contract negotiations went to neutral arbitrators who chose between final offers from school boards and unions.

Over time, unions used that system to boost wages and benefits across the board. If unions in one district got something, unions in others used that as precedent to win the same increase.

Teacher salaries in Wisconsin went from lagging the national average to the top 15. In 1977, average pay was $13,700; a decade later, it was $29,206, far outstripping even the high inflation of the period.

The seeds of a public backlash were planted by the arbitration law.

“Some would probably argue that was the death knell of real collective bargaining in Wisconsin,” said Rick Badger, now statewide head of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which since Act 10 has lost 70% of its members at two of its councils.

At the time, adding early retirement health care coverage was inexpensive. And if the union got it, typically the rest of the staff — including administrators — did as well. The benefit was handed out with little regard for long-term costs.

“It was a ticking time bomb,” said James Korom, an attorney for school districts.

As the 1990s dawned, Wisconsin’s per-pupil school spending — mostly teacher pay and benefits — rose to 12th highest nationally, at $5,666.

On employee benefits, spending ranked fourth at $1,145 per pupil, 50% over the U.S. average.

Worried about a tax revolt, Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and lawmakers from both parties — including newly elected state Rep. Scott Walker of Wauwatosa — moved to put limits on teacher bargaining power.

They encountered surprisingly little resistance from the unions.

After all, the arbitrators — not elected school boards — now usually decided their contracts.

“Members disengaged,” said John Matthews, who ran the Madison teachers union for 50 years. “We’d lost our pressure tactics.”

The 1993 changes allowed school districts to limit annual benefit and salary increases to 3.8% and avoid going to arbitration. Much of that increase now went to cover surging health costs, not pay increases. A Journal Sentinel analysis of a 20-year period found annual average wage growth fell from nearly 6% to 2% as a result.

The cap, along with a lid on school spending, dimmed collective bargaining’s power.

Around the same time, Thompson beat the union on his push to give low-income parents the option of sending students to private schools using public money.

The defeats pushed WEAC to shift more toward the Democratic Party instead of getting involved in primary contests in both parties.

“They became the bank for the Democratic Party,” Ellis said.

The spiral down

Over the next decade and beyond, teacher salaries fell well below the national average and classroom-related spending fell closer to that mark.

By 2003, the average salary was $42,882, about 8% below the national average of $46,735. The rate of increase in school property tax collections was cut in half, and the state’s high-taxing rank slipped some.

Pay increases were smaller, but they were tied to years of service and were close to automatic unless a teacher hit the top of the pay scale.

Still, many teachers paid nothing toward health care premiums, and WEAC’s own insurance company had a lock on the business in many districts through contract negotiations. Many teachers could retire in their mid-to-late 50s, with taxpayer-paid health insurance until 65, or beyond.

The successes had bred resentment over the years as private sector workers saw jobs go overseas and were forced to pay more for health care, even as their pay was flat or reduced.

Teachers heard it from workers laboring under pay freezes, and even from friends and relatives, especially during the Act 10 protests. While union members saw the changes as an unfair attack, many taxpayers saw it as government workers being brought in line with private sector ones.

“They were saying, ‘What, you’re getting a whatever percent raise?’” said Becky Chapman, a longtime kindergarten teacher in Pardeeville. “That’s where the community found it really tricky to have sympathy for teachers.”

Some members worried that unions were too isolated from broader community concerns, too focused on contract demands instead of educational quality.

“I think we became, as a union, a paper tiger of sorts, focusing too much on collective bargaining at the expense of everything else,” said Kim Schroeder, a teacher who is president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. “We set ourselves up as a target.”

Few in labor viewed Walker as a serious threat. In 2010, his Democratic opponent was Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who had angered teacher unions with a short-lived proposal for a mayoral takeover of city schools.

The union offered tepid support for Barrett, which was a boon for Walker.

Even after Walker’s victory, as the state faced a $3.6 billion budget gap, some labor leaders thought moderate Republicans in the state Senate would keep Walker in check, much as the County Board had when he was county executive.

Rich Abelson of AFSCME, Walker’s frequent foe in Milwaukee County, recounted a post-election meeting with fellow labor leaders where some said Walker wouldn’t be so bad.

“You can pretend all you want but you’re wrong,” Abelson said he told the group, plus a few choice expletives. “This guy’s going to destroy all of us.”

At a Milwaukee Press Club event a month after the election, Walker raised the possibility of essentially abolishing state employee unions as a budget-balancing measure. He had not brought up the issue in the campaign.

For many of his critics, the changes he unveiled two months later were an outgrowth of his ideology, his partisan activism, his alliances with powerful groups and people determined to squash unions, and his national ambition.

Walker says his goals were more narrow and specific.

“County government opened my eyes that this was a way to deal with the (state) budget challenges,” he said in a 2016 interview.

An island in Madison

Madison, a Democratic stronghold, remains an island in the new world of weakened unions.

Through legal challenges to Act 10 that allowed it to extend existing contracts, it was among the last school districts in the state to stop collective bargaining.

Teachers there are untouched by many of the changes their colleagues have felt.

In most school districts, the job protections, low-cost benefits, predictable raises and other benefits from decades of collective bargaining are on the way out or gone, according to a Journal Sentinel review of thousands of changes made by 100 school districts selected at random.

At the same time, teachers have more freedom of movement and in-demand educators can get healthy bonuses or raises, a Journal Sentinel examination found. School spending has slowed, as has property tax growth for schools.

More school administrators are laying off teachers based on performance instead of longevity, conducting stricter evaluations, lengthening the workday and tightening up on discipline.

Matthews, now retired from running Madison Teachers Inc., reminisces about running a school superintendent out of town in the 1990s after she clashed with teachers and dared to mess with the union’s choice of health insurance carrier.

In Madison, candidates and officeholders still routinely seek teacher union help and counsel.

“We haven’t seen a change,” Matthews said.

Statewide, the loss of membership and dues money has not kept the unions from spending millions on statewide campaigns. Unions helped President Barack Obama win the state twice, and helped elect Democrat Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate.

But labor’s support for Democrats wasn’t enough to stop Walker’s rise, his recall victory or his re-election win.

And it wasn’t enough to block the 2015 “right-to-work” bill.

Ron Martin, the new WEAC president, concedes labor is not in a position to be the campaign player it was before Act 10.

Dues from membership, a tough sell without collective bargaining, are off nearly 50% — $12 million in lost revenue as of 2014, based on the most recent tax return available.

Still, he said, the union has thousands of ground troops, many new leaders forged in the protests, and a big voting bloc.

“You can buy all the commercials you want and you can hang up all the signs you want, but it comes down to getting people out to vote, exercising their civic duty,” Martin said.

“When they do that I think we see things change.”

Meanwhile, a new political rival has grown into a huge force.

The American Federation for Children, a school-choice advocacy group, has ramped up campaign spending since 2009 in Wisconsin and now operates in 12 states.

In Wisconsin, the group gave more than $1 million to candidates in 2016, with the money primarily coming from a business group and Betsy DeVos and Jim Walton, whose fortunes stemmed from Amway and Wal-Mart, respectively. Last week, DeVos was named by president-elect Donald Trump as his pick for secretary of education.

“A decade ago our goal was to go toe to toe with (WEAC),” says AFC senior adviser Scott Jensen, a former Republican speaker of the state Assembly. “But we haven’t looked at it that way recently. We don’t see same level of activity from them.”

Back to basics

After Act 10’s passage, the 4,500-member Milwaukee union took a hard look at the local’s work and found that 85% of its time went toward litigating disputes and misconduct cases involving 2% of its members.

To broaden the union’s appeal to potential members, especially younger teachers, leaders shifted to working with the district on improved classroom practices, new student discipline techniques and culturally responsive teaching.

“We went back to actually caring about the profession as the main goal of our union,” said Schroeder, the current president. “Nobody enters teaching to become a union member. You do it to become a great teacher.”

Around the state, the union is helping teachers navigate the new evaluation system and the new world of free agency.

In place of collective bargaining, unions seek to influence management through informal talks, lobbying pressure on local boards and by running candidates.

WEAC chief Martin, who’s on leave now from a teaching job, said administrators in his home district of Eau Claire still meet regularly with union leaders to get support for their initiatives.

“I am seeing that more and more throughout the state, which is exciting,” Martin said of such collaborations.

The union in Milwaukee still sells its power as something opponents should fear. It has retained about 70% of teachers as members and helped eight of the nine MPS School Board members win office.

The union recently negotiated a new contract. Under the Act 10 caps, the negotiated base wage increase in many districts was limited to 0.12% this year.

The Milwaukee union, though, persuaded the school board to fund “step” increases on top of that ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 per teacher as they reached new levels of experience. And it helped MPS brush back a state plan to remove control of some low-performing schools from the School Board.

“We’re not supposed to be as powerful as we are right now, but here we are,” Schroeder told cheering union leaders in September.

Outside the Democratic strongholds of Milwaukee and Madison, many union locals never had that kind of clout. In some small towns, the teachers union presence has disappeared entirely.

If younger teachers don’t appreciate the bounty of benefits collective action brought teachers, the union’s future is bleak, said Barbara Hein, a high school math teacher and union leader in Pardeeville.

“As we retire and younger people come in who don’t know what a powerful union can do,” she said, “I think union membership will just sort of fizzle out.”

Research assistants Brittany Carloni, Sarah Hauer and Stephanie Harte, part of the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University, contributed to this report.

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