Reinventing Unionism in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin, it has been a trying time for public sector unions like the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). First, anti-union Republican Gov. Scott Walker took office in January 2011. Second, his so-called “budget repair bill” was passed by the Wisconsin Legislature that March. Known as Act 10, it did more to strip collective bargaining for most public sector unions than to cut costs. Tens of thousands of protesters had packed the statehouse and adjacent square to challenge the bill to no avail.

Third, approximately 900,000 irate citizens signed petitions to force a recall election in March, only to see Walker keep his seat as governor. Although a county judge recently threw out parts of Act 10, the decision created additional uncertainty surrounding the state’s collective bargaining laws. Walker says that his administration will appeal the ruling, and the case likely will again end up in the State Supreme Court.

This monumental political fight occurred amid an economically tumultuous atmosphere where Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) suffered budget cutbacks of more than $80 million. Consequently, almost 1,000 education jobs were slashed and schools were closed leading to a dramatic increase in class sizes throughout the district.

As these changes were swirling, first-grade teacher Rene Blazel stepped into the eye of the storm as a new MTEA building representative at Allen Field Elementary School.

“I started the position at a very difficult time,” she says. “We knew all along it would be a tough battle to recall Gov. Walker, but we truly believed that we had a fighting chance. In a way, many of us suffered from a post-election period of depression.”

Still, MTEA members pressed on. Blazel says members recognized that they had a fight ahead “because we have children who need and deserve a quality education in a quality system, no matter what the ruling governmental party believes.”

Since Walker’s time in office, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), labor groups, and other statewide organizations have been navigating Wisconsin’s new political and social terrain. Officials with MTEA, located in the state’s largest school district, decided to modify the way they do business.

One way MTEA has responded to the state’s new social environment is by working closer with parent, faith-based, and coalition organizations which share common community goals.

“Our unions, schools, and communities are in crisis,” says MTEA President Bob Peterson. “Our challenge is to win greater public support for public education and to work with other groups in our common struggle to provide quality jobs, health care and housing for all.”

Occupy Wall Street, Parents for Public Schools, and We Are Wisconsin (a voter education program) are several partners MTEA members are now working with. Tweaking the traditional MTEA union model is partly in response to the state’s elimination of collective bargaining for most public employees and how this impacts not only wages and benefits but also undermines the voice of educators from K-12 public schools to universities.

“Our educators’ voice has to be more powerful, credible and focused on solutions if we are to win the hearts and minds of our members and the broad public,” Peterson says. “We need to be politically smart, active, and creative as we work for real democracy.”

As such, MTEA has been promoting what Peterson calls “professional unionism” (educators taking ownership of teaching and learning) and “social justice unionism” (building relationships with stakeholder groups).

“We don’t want to be seen as just ensuring adequate support for public education,” says Peterson, who gave a speech to members titled, It’s Time to Re-imagine and Reinvent the MTEA. “We also want to be seen as a union that improves the community by building alliances with parent and community groups.”

Another part the campaign is to distribute the MTEA e-newsletter, titled “re-iMAGINE,” to all stakeholders and to work closer with school administrators. For example, six MTEA members will be recruited at every school to focus on advocacy areas such as, democracy, parent and community, teaching and learning, social justice and equity. A building representative and a chairperson will also be named.

Blazel says MTEA’s efforts to broaden its focus have promoted camaraderie between educators, parents, and other community members fighting for similar social causes.

“Teachers often feel very isolated,” she says. “It’s been a good experience to connect with a support system outside of our individual schools.”