On a Thursday morning three and a half years ago, readers of the Wall Street Journal opened their newspapers to find Gov. Scott Walker’s byline on an article defending his first big legislative initiative. The night before, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature had passed the bill – rewritten to remove a procedural roadblock so they could […]
On a Thursday morning three and a half years ago, readers of the Wall Street Journal opened their newspapers to find Gov. Scott Walker’s byline on an article defending his first big legislative initiative.
The night before, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature had passed the bill – rewritten to remove a procedural roadblock so they could act without 14 state Senate Democrats who had bolted from Wisconsin nearly three weeks earlier to stall the vote. On that Thursday, the bill would go to Walker for his signature.
Headlined “Why I’m Fighting in Wisconsin,” the article began:
In 2010, Megan Sampson was named an Outstanding First Year Teacher in Wisconsin. A week later, she got a layoff notice from Milwaukee Public Schools. Why would one of the best new teachers in the state be one of the first let go? Because her collective-bargaining contract requires staffing decisions to be made based on seniority.
Megan Sampson had no idea she was about to become the poster child for Act 10 – the new governor’s bill, which was about to become law – eliminating a number of union rights for most public employees. She had never been contacted by the Walker camp. She heard about the piece from her mother.
And when she did find out, it worried her.
The facts were accurate. Sampson had begun her career in the Milwaukee Public Schools in the fall of 2009 at Bradley Tech. As that school year drew to a close in mid-2010, the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English named her the state’s outstanding first-year teacher. A week later, she was one of 482 educators to get a layoff notice as MPS worked to cut $48 million from the district’s $1.2 billion budget.
And indeed, Sampson and most of her 481 colleagues were let go because they were at the bottom of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association seniority list. She and several co-workers were quoted in a June 2010 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story about fledgling teachers losing their jobs. That’s where, nine months later, Walker and his staff had gotten the anecdote for the governor’s Wall Street Journal article.
Walker’s article had omitted one point, though: Megan Sampson hadn’t stayed unemployed.
She got a job teaching English at Wauwatosa East High School – the same school the governor’s two sons attended – starting in the fall of 2010. Two weeks after she accepted the Wauwatosa East position, MPS had an opening and offered it to her; she had to decline.
On the day Walker’s article appeared, Megan Sampson was pulling out of the school parking lot at 5:15 in the afternoon when she first heard about it in a voice mail message from her mother.
“I was worried that I would be perceived as an overly political teacher who was looking to get her time in the limelight,” Sampson says, looking back. “And I was worried it would affect the way my students perceive me in my classroom.”
At its core, the public relations war over Act 10 pitted deficit hawks against public-employee unions, perhaps most visibly the Wisconsin Education Association Council, often a political lightning rod. And in the political melodrama, public school teachers were cast as villains.
After Act 10’s introduction on Feb. 15, 2011, teachers, other government workers, and their supporters had converged in Madison, surrounding the Capitol in protest against the measure. Meanwhile, because the state Constitution required a Senate quorum to vote on fiscal bills – which Act 10 had been initially – the Senate Democratic leadership had left the state, hoping to block the vote. Not until March 9 did Republican Assembly leaders rewrite the bill to eliminate the spending provision so the Senate could vote on it without the absent Democrats.
When she learned of Walker’s op-ed, Sampson wondered anxiously whether it would lead fellow teachers to misinterpret her opinions about Act 10 – perhaps pegging her as an enthusiastic supporter of the bill. “I was not and am not motivated by politics in any way,” she says. She’d always seen her vocation as far removed from that realm.
Then the media started calling. And calling. And calling.
Messages flooded her voicemail and email account. She was in a conference with a parent one day when an ESPN reporter called. (Yes, ESPN.) “I ultimately ended up hanging up on this poor reporter because I was so caught off guard,” she says. “I didn’t want to discuss this issue in front of a parent because I didn’t know how to broach this issue with my students’ parents.”
She felt vulnerable. Scared. She also felt an urge to correct the record.
“I was worried that my lack of response would send the message that I was not only OK with the use of my story in this way, but that I was also in agreement with the message Walker was propagating.”
Chalk Talk: Megan Sampson’s story of losing her post as an English teacher was circulated far and wide. Photo by Sara Stathas.
It was Scott Walker’s signature policy initiative – the one for which he’ll be forever praised and vilified.
Whether the governor wins or loses re-election in November, whether he makes good on widely assumed ambitions to run for president in two years, nothing will resonate more than the bill he introduced just six weeks into his first term.
Act 10 was, for Wisconsin, an unprecedented challenge to the state’s unionized public employees, a challenge that Walker claimed would cut spending and boost education reform.
Introduced as a “budget repair bill” for the state spending plan already in effect, Act 10 allowed the state, local governments and school districts to unilaterally charge employees up to 12.6 percent of the monthly cost of their health insurance premiums – about half the amount paid by employees in Wisconsin’s private sector, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research organization. Backed by fiscal conservatives, it also mandated that public workers contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to retirement pensions.
Moreover, with the exception of police and firefighters, Act 10 rolled back union rights for Wisconsin state and local government employees, and rendered their unions virtually powerless. Union-bargained wage increases could not exceed the inflation rate, and everything else was off limits for contract negotiations: safety measures, grievance procedures, staffing levels, work rules.
What many municipal leaders, school boards and superintendents across the state had been unable to win across the negotiating table, the governor and his allies in the Legislature took with the force of law.
Politically, Walker and his supporters see in Act 10 the triumph of smart, lean government over entrenched special interests. From a policy perspective, they have framed the law as the cornerstone of a major renovation of the state’s economic edifice, one that can promote long-term growth and business vitality.
“Reforming collective bargaining was necessary not just to close our deficit and balance our budget; it was also needed to restore fundamental fairness to the system,” the governor declares in his memoir about the battle, Unintimidated. Internal polls, said Walker, showed that 73 percent of Wisconsin residents believed public employees should pay more for health insurance, and 80 percent supported requiring them to contribute to their pensions.
To Walker’s critics, however, Act 10 was nothing less than a power grab by politicians beholden to a wealthy and powerful constituency.
The Walker administration credits Act 10 with saving state and local governments and public schools nearly $3.16 billion to date, including more than $2.3 billion in reduced pension contributions. Figures put out by the administration include $475 million in lower health insurance costs to the state; $200 million in health insurance and unspecified other savings to K12 school districts in 2011-12; and $77 million in “miscellaneous” local government savings for 2011-12. The state saved $12 million in overtime in 2012 and $30 million in 2011, while the city of Milwaukee saved $7.25 million in overtime costs, according to the administration. Beyond all that, local governments and school districts have received greater flexibility to hire, fire and assign employees.
Skeptics, though, point to slower job growth in Wisconsin compared with some neighboring states, and suggest that reduced purchasing power on the part of government workers might contribute to that.
It may be years before we truly know what Act 10 has wrought.
Municipal leaders and school administrators had been conflicted about the bill. They’d long wanted to amend state laws governing public sector labor negotiations – laws that banned strikes and instead required mediation and arbitration when the two sides reached impasse.
The law tended to give unions the upper hand, says Curt Witynski, assistant director and chief lobbyist for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities. His group wanted to “change the balance a little bit and put more control back in the hands of management” in union negotiations. “We were never on record as an organization saying, ‘Yes, let’s get rid of collective bargaining as we know it.’”
When the full reach of the Walker bill became clear, the municipal league “walked right down the middle,” Witynski says. Mayors and city administrators didn’t want to alienate union members back in their home communities. “We didn’t oppose, we didn’t support. We just kept our mouth shut and watched what happened.”
School boards were at least as ambivalent. “Our members were split,” acknowledges Barry Forbes, associate executive director and staff counsel at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. “Some school districts viewed Act 10 very positively. Others, not so much. We’re an organization that represents all of them, and we’re trying to express the aggregate view.”
The association’s first public statement was a measured appreciation for the bill’s “flexibility” in containing benefit and wage costs. “School boards value the collaborative relationship we have enjoyed with teachers and staff as well as continuity in the provision of services to our children and communities,” said the statement. “We will look for ways to keep the dialogue alive.”
Once enacted, though, the bill became an opportunity.
“Act 10 resolved many of the issues that all school boards were concerned about,” says Forbes. “Act 10 gives school boards the ability to make decisions about employee compensation, fringe benefits and working conditions that they could not before. They’re just making them and getting on with the business of educating the children of Wisconsin.”
For the smallest communities, where the municipal employees often lacked union representation, there was little, if any, difference, says Witynski. But for larger ones with a union presence, the savings helped make up for “significant cuts” in local shared revenue and transportation aid in Walker’s first budget. Act 10 “was helpful for a lot of communities to make those budgets work.”
Because it left police and firefighter unions largely alone, says Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke, it had little impact on “roughly two-thirds of our workforce.” Not only were savings less than they might have been; it also fostered a two-tiered workplace. “That created a certain amount of tension.”
Still, Neitzke adds, thanks to Act 10, the city could hang tough even with the police and firefighter unions on health care costs, arriving at health plans that were generally equivalent across all employee groups.
There have been other savings, including reductions in overtime costs and legal fees. “School boards do not spend nearly as much time making wage, hour, and working-conditions decisions as they used to,” says Forbes. The school boards association had seven lawyers on staff before Act 10 and now has four. “They don’t spend near as much money on attorneys.”
The biggest cost cuts, though, likely won’t be repeated. Forbes sees little chance school districts will be able to carve more out of pension or health care costs, for example. “In large part, it was a one-shot savings.”
But even short-term savings were better than none. “One can argue about how Act 10 was done,” says Neitzke. “But it ultimately gave some reprieve to unsustainable increases in costs.”
On The Front Lines: Wauwatosa East Principal Nick Hughes, right, and Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Phil Ertl have wrestled with the changes brought on by Act 10. Photo by Sara Stathas
In Unintimidated, Scott Walker holds up the Wauwatosa School District as an object lesson in Act 10’s success.
For 2011-12, the district faced a $6.5 million budget deficit that it could have closed by laying off 100 teachers. “But they used the tools in Act 10 to save them all,” Walker states in the book.
Wauwatosa School District Superintendent Phil Ertl confirms those numbers. For years, he and his colleagues in school administration across the state had hoped for a stronger hand in union negotiations – but nowhere near to the degree they got with Act 10. “We were looking for small amounts of flexibility, and it came in bucketfuls,” he says.
A change in its health plan, new employee contributions for health insurance and pensions, and a salary freeze negotiated with the unions to which employees still belonged all made it possible for the district to avoid laying off teachers that year and since, Ertl says. It also meant class sizes did not increase. This year, the district let go its once-unionized custodial staff and hired a private contractor paying lower wages.
Yet the law’s shock waves are much, much bigger. “I think it’s impacted everything we do in public education in Wisconsin,” Ertl says.
Wauwatosa East Principal Nick Hughes has been an administrator for 14 years. He’s married to a Menomonee Falls teacher. In their conversations at home, “I still am reminded of the teacher’s perspective.”
With Act 10, “the rules really changed,” Hughes says. “For many of us who had been in education for a long time, you always knew where you stood.”
That’s gone, replaced, for teachers, with “a lot of fear, quite honestly,” he says. “Then the fear turned into mistrust. The biggest worry was that, as a district, we were going to do something dramatically different, just because we could.”
Wauwatosa East English teacher Jean Biebel says she wasn’t especially afraid when Act 10 passed. She’s confident of her standing and skills as a teacher; colleagues, administrators and parents all reinforce that.
“I might be an exception,” she admits. “I do think there are a lot of teachers who are fearful and who are afraid to make professional choices in their classroom about student learning.”
Act 10 caused many of her co-workers to ask themselves, “Am I doing what I want to do?” she says. “There was this feeling among teachers that, ‘My job is in jeopardy.’”
Teachers say policy changes do come much faster now, because they need not be negotiated. “There are some that have been well-executed and some that haven’t,” says Tosa East English teacher Jon Balcerak. “But that’s the kind of thing that happened prior to Act 10 as well.”
Teachers say top-down decisions can hamper schedules or increase the workload, which leaves less time during the regular day for planning, grading, or individual communication with students or parents. Many have adapted. Others feel more rushed and overwhelmed.
When teachers leave, the reason often gets reduced to salary, says Balcerak. “But a lot of the teachers I have communicated with who have gone to other districts or have left the profession say it’s because of stress and disrespect more than salary.”
What has been lost, teachers say, is their voice.
“We bring a lot to the table,” says Biebel. “Our voice has always been involved in the workday. When you remove that teacher voice, you’re left with people making those decisions that don’t have immediate contact – they’ve forgotten the immediacy of being in the classroom.” Administrators “want what’s best for students,” she continues. “But they’re not the ones in the trenches.”
Membership in a union meant a degree of protection that some teachers say was good for teacher professionalism. In the current environment, “We’re a little unclear,” says Balcerak. “Does disagreement equal insubordination? For that matter, isn’t it healthy within an organization to have dissenting voices, to have some intelligent discourse? But teachers are nervous to disagree.”
University of Wisconsin-Madison education professor Simone Schweber is encountering similar stories from teachers across the state.
“Act 10 had a huge impact on teachers – on their senses of themselves, their senses of what they do in the classroom, and their senses of their communities,” says Schweber. She and UW-Madison alumna Katy Swalwell, a University of Maryland education professor, are doing an ongoing study of teachers’ reaction to Act 10 and its aftermath.
For their research, Schweber and Swalwell are collecting and comparing the employee handbooks – which include, for example, hours that teachers must work, meetings they must attend, and after-school programs they must supervise – that have replaced union contracts. And they’re gathering interviews from across the ideological and political spectrum. As Schweber points out: “Conservative teachers felt quite differently than teachers who were opposed to the legislation.”
In interviews with middle school and high school social studies teachers, they’ve found many “have a very intensely, long-standing dedication to teaching,” Schweber says. “We’ve talked to teachers who have left their districts after 20 years of teaching – where they felt completely at home and well-loved in their community, and after the protests felt themselves disdained and unable to teach in that community.”
Some teachers have found themselves “radicalized” by the whole experience, becoming more concerned with teaching as a means of promoting social justice. Others have transferred to other communities, followed other education career pathways, or left the field entirely.
“Many feel so disempowered from being recognized as professionals that they’re rethinking the choice of where to teach and, in some cases, how to teach,” Schweber says.
The Wauwatosa district has been trying to navigate the new world. Ertl, the superintendent, knows employees are still wary. They tell him ‘“We have the fear of retaliation. We have the fear of losing jobs,’” he says. He’s trying to encourage a culture in which those fears go away.
It’s much easier to implement specific policy changes quickly without a union. But getting the pulse of employees is a more complicated matter. “We’ve been challenged with that,” Ertl says. With 580 teachers in the district, “no one group can speak for all the teachers.”
The greater freedom and authority to act unilaterally thanks to Act 10 doesn’t mean the jobs of administrators are any easier.
“Act 10 pushed us even further into adversarial times,” says Tosa East Principal Nick Hughes. “Act 10 has made my job harder now, because now I think we have to really be deliberate and up-front.” When work rules change, “we’re always battling [the argument] ‘You’re only doing this because you can.’”
Dan Wade is a retired chief of the Kenosha Police Department and onetime president of the Kenosha police union. He still has the buzz cut of his working days as a cop. Having lived and worked on both sides of the labor-management divide, he never particularly expected to wind up in politics.
But that’s where Wade is now – one of two insurgent candidates elected in April to the Kenosha Unified School District board.
Wade calls himself a political independent – “a constitutionalist, perhaps” – who will vote for Republicans or Democrats, “whatever is the correct person for the job.” He’s long benefited, he says, as a public employee. But he also has wondered how long it could last.
“I started in the department in 1973,” says Wade. “From that point up until I retired, the city gave us an excellent benefit package – insurance, sick leave. You had the best there was, as far as health insurance.”
Wages also rose annually for a long time, he says – until, because of spiraling health costs, wages were frozen to preserve fully paid health benefits. He’d find himself questioning whether his city-paid retirement benefits through the state of Wisconsin were sustainable.
But what propelled Wade onto the school board was a series of events in 2013 that culminated in the Kenosha board negotiating a new contract with the Kenosha Education Association – a contract that was born in one courtroom and died in another.
One of Act 10’s provisions requires public employee unions to prove annually that they are favored by a majority of the workers whom they represent. They do that through an annual recertification vote administered by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC). The law requires a 51 percent majority (not the usual 50 percent plus 1 vote), and it counts the total yes votes against the entire group of workers in the local work unit – not just those who cast ballots. In other words, non-voters are automatic “no union” votes.
Some unions have decided it wasn’t worth the effort to recertify. But when unions have chosen to go through recertification, they’ve usually survived.
The Kenosha Education Association skipped the process entirely. Joe Kiriaki, the union’s retiring executive director, says the union could’ve won a vote. Instead, KEA went to court. It argued that a 2012 ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas, who had declared parts of Act 10 unconstitutional, meant WERC shouldn’t be requiring recertification.
Since the KEA hadn’t filed for a vote, WERC decertified the union effective Aug. 31, 2013. But in September, the teachers union won a ruling from Colas blocking decertification and reinstating the union’s bargaining rights.
For years, the Kenosha seven-member school board has seesawed between one-vote margins either favoring or challenging the KEA. In 2013, the four-member majority was pro-union, and after the Colas ruling, they quickly negotiated a new labor agreement – against the wishes of the school administration and against the advice of the district’s lawyers.
News of the new labor contract outraged community activists who had favored Act 10. Two conservative legal groups – the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty – sued the school board to block the contract. The lawsuit charged the deal had violated Act 10.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to cancel the union contract was Kristi LaCroix – a former Kenosha Unified English teacher, and Dan Wade’s daughter.
Wade says his daughter never discussed the lawsuit with him, and that she had essentially been recruited by WILL as a plaintiff. But like her, he felt the contract was wrong.
Wade and Gary Kunich, a former Kenosha News reporter who is now communications director for the Milwaukee Veterans Administration hospital, mounted campaigns for the school board that took aim at the pro-union majority. The pro-Walker Americans for Prosperity ran phone banks and canvassed voters, although, says Wade, “they never contributed a dime to my campaign.”
In the April 1 election, Wade and Kunich emerged victorious, unseating one pro-union incumbent and turning away a newcomer who had the union’s endorsement. Two months later, they were on the winning side of yet another 4-to-3 vote – this time to settle the lawsuit and to reject the labor contract.
Act 10 has “good points and bad points – just like anything,” Wade says. He wonders if there would have been less turmoil if Walker’s law could have been phased in some way. In the end, though, he believes it was necessary in the face of costs that he saw as out of control.
“I feel that, for a long time, labor’s gotten a pretty good deal,” he says. “At some point in time, all good things have to come to an end.”
Public sector unions had long been powerful forces in the state’s politics, endorsing candidates, raising money and getting out the vote on Election Day (usually for Democrats). Yet the sweep of Act 10’s provisions revealed just how vulnerable those unions were. The law’s evisceration of them was a blow to institutions ensconced not just in government and public school workplaces, but in the state’s political culture as well.
Even where unions have maintained certification, their numbers are down significantly, partly because they could no longer require membership or agency fees – payments from people who are covered by the contract but refuse to join. The Wisconsin Education Association Council has gone from 98,000 members to about half that number. Enrollment in the Wisconsin State Employees Union has fallen by as much as 60 percent. Throughout government workplaces, the pattern is similar.
Reasons for not joining vary. Some employees never supported the union in the first place and were glad to be free from it. Others saw little utility in belonging, even if the union maintained its certification.
Still others had their own reasons. Jean Biebel speaks highly of the role the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association and its parent, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, played in helping her earn board-certification – an advanced teaching credential – when she was a teacher at MPS. The preparation to be board-certified “has been formative for me as an educator,” Biebel says, helping her hone skills in connecting with students to help them think, understand and learn. “I don’t think I could have done that without the support of my union. And Wauwatosa has been the beneficiary of my instruction.”
But the union’s role in that sort of professionalization was not apparent in the battle over Act 10 – which made the fight that much more disheartening, she says. The dominant media and political narrative distorted the union’s role, she says. “It wasn’t known how our union has been instrumental in helping move student learning forward.”
For her, the outcome wasn’t just a failure on the part of politics or the media. She places the fault closer to home. “It was the union’s. They lost the PR battle when we became public enemy No. 1. Clearly, our union had failed.”
More savvy and nuanced union communication with the larger public and better union leadership overall might have prevented that, she believes, and her local union missed an opportunity to make a strong case with the public for its positive role in student learning. “I don’t think they did enough to put a professional face on our cause.” For that reason – even though she often sympathizes with the union’s political stances and saw it as a valuable participant in the education workplace – she dropped out of the union.
Regardless of how they feel about Act 10, people who have lived most closely to its implementation agree on one thing: The way things were isn’t coming back – whether or not Scott Walker wins re-election in November.
As labor contracts give way to employee handbooks, some districts and government employers are adopting procedures that closely parallel their old labor contracts, hoping to minimize disruption and anxiety.
School boards and other public employers also are still able to meet with union leaders to discuss the handbooks or other matters, says Barry Forbes of the school boards association. What they cannot do is conduct formal negotiations or include the handbook terms in a union contract. And unlike union contract negotiations, he adds, all such discussions involving school boards (or other elected bodies) must take place in open meetings. Labor talks, by contrast, can take place in private under the state’s open meetings law.
Other employers are reaching for alternative mechanisms. Last year, 68 Wauwatosa East teachers reportedly signed a letter critical of district policies, and in public statements to the school board, parents and teachers pointed to a wave of resignations among teachers across the district. One resigning elementary teacher told the board of ongoing “tension and disconnect” between teachers and administrators.
Perhaps the resignations were a wake-up call for Tosa school administrators. The district formed a committee including teachers – Jean Biebel was one – to recommend ways to restructure salaries to bring them up to those of other districts. She thinks it could’ve been done under the framework of traditional union bargaining. “It just would have taken longer.”
As superintendent, Ertl says he believes that collaboration is a key to improving teaching and education. To that end, the district now has additional professional time for teachers every week. “We have some amazing teachers that do incredible things with that time,” he says. “They’re looking at the learning data, and they’re using the data to adjust what they’re doing in the classroom.”
Meanwhile, unions, too, are finding ways to adjust to the new environment.
In Jefferson County, the local unit of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees didn’t recertify, but remains active, primarily in the county highway department, says the local’s former president, Ann Jenswold.
In 2012, the county board was preparing to institute a new employee handbook. The handbook would have eliminated a provision in the old union contract that required the county to show “just cause” before attempting to fire an employee. Dropping that language would have turned all county workers into “at-will” employees, subject to dismissal with little or no recourse, regardless of the reason.
Jenswold and other union leaders wrote letters and mobilized employees to speak up at the county board in favor of the just-cause language. The night the board voted on the issue – Valentine’s Day, 2012 – union members in their AFSCME jackets and sweatshirts showed up with heart-shaped cookies. Jenswold made sure every member of the board got one, with the message “have a heart – vote for just cause.” The board voted 24-2 to keep the language.
Jim Schroeder, current chairman of the Jefferson County Board, says the lopsided vote “helped a lot” to reassure fearful employees about the future. At the same time, though, “morale is an issue in some departments,” Schroeder says. “It’s an issue that I as a county board chairman and the county administrator talk about quite often.”
Betsy Kippers, WEAC state president, says her union is taking on a more broad-based role. “We are really moving to a much more member-led, member-focused, community-driven union,” she says. “We are so focused on what’s most important in that school district, in that school building, for those students, and how can we be a strong voice in what’s best for the education of all students around the state.”
It’s an approach that Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Bob Peterson had advocated long before he was elected to his post. Peterson says the MTEA, which has retained its union certification, continues to work with the Milwaukee Public Schools administration on programs that cannot be part of a formally negotiated labor contract but can still maintain the union’s direct participation. Those include mentoring programs for new teachers and discussions to help shape evaluation procedures to meet a new statewide evaluation standard put out by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
But the MTEA also has been pursuing larger alliances with community groups in the district.
“Historically, public sector unions have missed some real opportunities” to align themselves with broader public concerns, Peterson says, and also to promote themselves as advocates not just for their members but for the public that employs their members through tax dollars. “To the degree that public sector unions have not had that understanding, it’s easy for others to divide public sector unions from the taxpayer.”
Tom Kochan is a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s spent his career studying what he calls “innovations in employment relations.” Perhaps a rarity in his discipline, he sees the steady decline of unionization over the last three decades as ultimately bad for business. “We have reached a point where we’re at a crisis in worker voice and representation,” he says.
Kochan and his colleagues have worked with large employers – the former General Motors subsidiary Saturn and West Coast health care provider Kaiser Permanente among them – to establish labor-management partnerships that allow employees to maintain a strong voice in the workplace while also working with management to improve business operations.
National publicity over Wisconsin’s labor strife so frustrated Kochan that he persuaded teachers unions, school board leaders and the Massachusetts state education department to form the Massachusetts Education Partnership. The goal is to encourage using “collaborative tools and problem-solving in education” in local communities and school negotiations.
Management-driven attempts to give employees a voice at work are going to be limited in their effectiveness, he says. “It leaves it up to management – to one side – to say, ‘I want to do this,’ and it doesn’t provide the positive institutional support that a secure set of elected representatives bring to the process.”
When Act 10 passed, teacher Megan Sampson resolved to not make any rash career moves. She has since earned her master’s degree; now, she thinks about using it to move into curriculum work, teacher mentoring or higher education.
“I love teaching,” she says. She has no plans to leave and says she’s happy in her current position. But the changes since 2011 have also amplified the limitations under which many teachers work: “Seeing some of the ways teachers’ voices are overlooked or untapped since Act 10 has made me reconsider how long I want to stay in the classroom setting.”
At the same time, she says, she wearies of how the law and the fight around it seem to have branded the whole profession as so politically driven. Non-teachers she meets seem to assume that as a teacher, she must have strong political views – drawing her into conversations and debates she’d rather avoid. In a way, she’s been boxed in by others’ assumptions.
After Walker’s op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal that had made her so briefly famous, Sampson decided she had to speak up. Erin Richards – a Journal Sentinel reporter who had written bout the new-teacher layoffs – had contacted her; Sampson decided to respond.
In her new interview with Richards, “I made a point to remain neutral politically,” Sampson says. “As an educator, I need my students to not see me as a political person.”
She also spoke with colleagues, anxious to erase false impressions about her attitudes toward Act 10 or the teachers union based on the Walker article. Some “were concerned that they had offended me with their discussions about Act 10,” she says. Sampson sought to reassure them that was not the case.
In the 2012-13 school year, Sampson had Walker’s younger son in one of her upper-level classes. She wondered privately whether she should address the subject with him directly, but decided not to. And on parent-teacher conference night, she wondered how she would engage with the governor.
As it happened, when Walker showed up, “We spoke only about his son,” Sampson says, “which finally humanized Walker for me. During that conference, he truly was just a father who cared deeply about his son’s learning and achievement.”
But Sampson wondered whether Walker had even known she was the teacher in his op-ed piece.
In Unintimidated, Walker has a chapter in which he describes what gave rise to the Wall Street Journal article. “Meet Ms. Sampson,” like the article, offers Megan Sampson’s MPS experience as justification for Act 10.
Several chapters later, he reveals that his son Alex coincidentally took a class with Sampson at Wauwatosa East.
“He told me she was indeed an awesome teacher,” the book states. “I sat down with her for a parent-teacher conference, and could not agree more. It was the first time I had ever met her.
“Act 10 never came up.”
Sampson learned about the book’s reference to her after it was published. She has yet to read it. ■
Erik Gunn is a contributing editor for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.Tune in as Erik Gunn discusses the story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” Aug. 8 at 10 a.m.
This article appears in the August 2014 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.