PRESCOTT, Wis. – Prescott High School special education teacher Michelle Uetz has a message for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Thank you.
Uetz never appreciated how she was forced by state law to join and pay dues to the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the statewide teachers union, and it wasn’t until the governor’s Act 10 was passed in 2011 that she was free to dump the affiliation.
“It’s important to have a choice, because we are all professionals. We shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into contributing to politics we don’t believe in,” Uetz told EAGnews. “I think it’s a very good thing.”
Uetz is among a wave of Wisconsin educators who dropped their union memberships in the wake of Act 10, for a variety of reasons.
Chief among them is WEAC’s partisan political alliance with the state’s Democratic Party, which went to war with Walker and Republican lawmakers in 2011 in an attempt to halt Act 10’s impact on collective bargaining and union privileges.
Act 10 forces the state’s local public employee unions to hold recertification votes annually to ensure a majority of members want to retain their services, and prohibits public employers from automatically deducting union dues from paychecks.
The new law also limits union collective bargaining primarily to wages, which cannot increase faster than the consumer price index.
The result has been a mass exodus of educators from union rolls. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that “after Act 10, WEAC has lost about a third of its approximately 98,000 members and AFT- Wisconsin (another teachers union) is down to about 6,500 members from its peak of approximately 16,000.”
At the same time, membership in professional teacher organizations has steadily increased in Wisconsin, according to Kristi Lacroix, the state’s chief recruiter for the Association of American Educators, which provides liability insurance and other benefits for school employees at a fraction of the cost of union dues.
AAE has grown from less than 300 to nearly 1,000 members in Wisconsin since Act 10 took effect, Lacroix said.
“They don’t want to spend their money on partisan politics, that’s what I’m hearing,” said Lacroix, who left her teaching position in Kenosha to work for AAE. “They don’t want to do anything that’s not germane to education.”
Deena Ferguson, a teacher at Fox Prairie Elementary in Stilton near the Minnesota border, said union political activity was a major reason she ditched her membership, but the cost of dues and the general way WEAC operates were also big factors.
Teachers could technically opt out of the political portion of their union dues under the old system, she said, but would still have to pay the majority of the nearly $1,000 annual expense.
“They will never convince me they spend only $15 to $20 per member on politics and donations,” Ferguson said.
Money and politics aside, Ferguson said WEAC also eroded the teaching profession by enabling poor or dangerous educators to remain in their classrooms.
“Too many teachers who maybe shouldn’t be in the profession are protected, and they know it,” Ferguson said. “It’s all about the adults, and not the children.”
“If the union is so beneficial and good, people will want to join on the principle and the merits and not be forced to join,” she said.
In the past, individual WEAC members had little say in union operations because revenue was guaranteed through automatic dues deductions, but now the tables have turned and union officials are suddenly interested in individual members, according to Ferguson.
“The first year we were allowed to opt out, three or four weeks into the summer I had two union officers stop out to my house and ask me why I didn’t join,” Ferguson said.
The Act 10 changes created a different dynamic in many schools. Wisconsin educators can now deal directly with administrators, without a union filter, the teachers reported.
“Now I can send emails to the superintendent or school board when they are negotiating contracts,” said Uetz, who added that her superintendent solicits input directly from teachers.
Ferguson also believes teachers have more influence than they did under the union-dominated, pre-Act 10 system.
“In some aspects, I see the administration and board reaching out more to teachers, instead of going straight to the union,” she said.
Tracie Happel, a Republican candidate for the state assembly in Wisconsin’s 94th district, and a veteran teacher at La Crosse schools, dropped her WEAC membership at the earliest opportunity following Act 10, primarily due to the union’s one-sided politics.
But she also doesn’t believe degreed teachers need “a nebulous organization making decisions about things involving my job.”
“Whatever the union does for us … I think we are capable of handling these things on our own with our supervisors,” she said.
“People who want to be part of the union … that’s their decision, I don’t believe in butting into people’s personal lives. But for those who are in the union … they don’t appreciate that I can have my own opinion and my own thoughts about it.”
That attitude still persists in many school districts, Happel said, including her own, where only three teachers voted against their local union’s most recent round of recertification.
Act 10 gave teachers the opportunity to break with WEAC, and many have, but a stigma cast on those who resigned, and the union’s continued influence in public schools, remain deterrents for some, the teachers said.
“I know other conservative teachers who are not in the union, but they’re not willing to go public,” Happel said. “It’s not an easy place to be.”
“I worked with a young teacher who was thinking of leaving the union and she was actually scared to leave,” Ferguson said, adding that WEAC still heavily recruits new teachers with fear tactics about the need for protection from “administrators and those people downtown.”
But Ferguson explained the benefits of nonpartisan organizations like AAE to her colleague, and the young teacher finally went with her instinct and dropped out of WEAC.
“We talked quite a bit and she said, ‘I do my job well, and I don’t really need to be afraid,’” Ferguson said.
While Lacroix contends “there is defiantly a movement” of Wisconsin teachers from WEAC to organizations like AAE, she still struggles against a system that lends special treatment to the union while shutting out better alternatives.
“It’s been hard to get the word out … administrators and superintendents are hesitant to let us in,” Lacroix said.
Regardless, WEAC is doing little to advance the teaching profession, Lacroix said, which will only convince more educators to seek out cheaper and more effective representation.
“I think it’s interesting the union hasn’t chosen to change its business model, even though teachers are leaving in droves,” Lacroix said. “It’s just business as usual with them, so I see more and more professionals leaving.”