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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

My Thoughts At The Start Of This School Year

As September approaches, all of the families and schools in Wisconsin are preparing for another school year. I would like to say that the start of this school year is like any other I've experienced; the reality, however, is that we are only starting to understand the impact of the "tools" Governor Walker gave to local school boards. When I think about work, my mind sinks into these two familiar tracks: Why does our school board hate those who work closest with students? Why has our union abandoned us? When I am at school preparing for the students who will be walking through my door this fall, I have to continually shove these thoughts out of my mind. I have yet to find an effective way to ease the feeling of being disrespected and used by both organizations.

On March 14, 2011, teachers in the School District of Mauston received a document titled “Acceptance of Contract Renewal To Teach And/Or Provide Educational Services” from the School District of Mauston. One line on this document was in bold: “Failure to return the written notice of acceptance of the employment offer on or before April 15, 2011, will be construed as a rejection of the offered employment and will result in loss of your position.” We had to sign on and agree to take a job for which we knew no details: “...at this time, we are unable to advise you about your salary, benefits, and assignment for the 2011-2012 school year. Please be advised that an individual teaching contract will be transmitted to you at a later date.” To put it simply, this was a combination of a loyalty oath and a yellow-dog contract. We were agreeing to accept a job that would be contracted on an “individual” basis.

Though we were signing a document that attested to our willingness to act as individuals, the union advised us to add a paragraph to the document that, in part, indicated that we were agreeing to employment terms subject to negotiations between the school district and the Mauston Education Association. I remember thinking at that time how futile it was to write this passage on the document. This was after several visits to Madison, including one in which I saw 100,000 plus people surrounding the capitol. I came home after the last few visits not renewed with union spirit or buoyed up by solidarity; I was depressed that such a large demonstration of opposition was having no effect on what was happening in the capitol (aside from it being locked-down). Clearly I wasn't alone in being hurt by Walker's “budgetary” changes; but, it was just as clear that it didn't matter how many people showed up to express their distress. In the later visits I couldn't escape the feeling that we were begging for any scrap of recognition.

At the end of the school year (June 6, 2011) we received a letter from Steven Smolek, Superintendent of the School District of Mauston that promised us “[our] gross wages (before taxes, or other required deductions) will not be less than they are currently. In addition, once the dust settles in Madison and there is resolution to the status of Act 10, an individual contract will be provided to you prior to the start of the 2011-2012 school year.” And indeed when a contract was mailed to me on July 5, 2011 it placed my gross salary a few hundred dollars higher than last year's salary. However, it also contained another step reduction that puts me back at step one after ten calendar years and six years on contract with the district. In the letter attached we were informed that “The board members believe this schedule reflects a fair plan for all teachers.” This is just another indication that if we don't work together, details are missed. The board failed to understand that reducing staff members in steps (again) creates situations in which people are payed more simply by being new to the district. We no longer reward loyalty; we reward novelty. In our inservice we have been asked to have patience over this salary schedule issue. When final numbers of students are in we might get back some of the steps lost to get a “raise.” No promises, just more uncertainty.

There are many other changes at the start of this school year. One change actually hit us starting July 1, 2011. Our insurance program was changed so that we will have to pay more out of pocket for office visits and prescription drugs. This is just another form of pay reduction. All employees here in Mauston are trying to figure out how to live with take home pay that has been reduced by about 18% to pay Walker's tax on public sector workers. Now, with less money to begin with, we have to also figure out how to pay more for health care.

In addition to the salary issues, the school board has also distributed an employee handbook that they are repeatedly reminding us can and will be changed whenever they see fit. The us-versus-them mentality has been reinforced and now one side is at a great disadvantage. Instead of sitting down to work with us, our school board took Walker's "tools" in hand and quickly destroyed lines of communication, avenues of collaboration, and foundations of trust that had been built over the past decades. Any mutual respect that existed has been sacrificed on the fiscal altar to the false god of tax savings. It is also exceptionally transparent and disingenuous when our board tries to blame Walker; the school board could have chosen many options but they chose this path and now they need to live with the consequences. Also, the more times you say, “So, it isn't that much different than before,” the more you point out how wrong you were to choose the path you have taken. The message we received in our inservice about this new handbook is that only time will show us whether it is a resource that facilitates employee/management relationships or a “tool” that will be used to abuse employees. With our current board and administrative team I am not immediately assuming they will try to abuse us. But who knows what future boards or administrative teams will do. Especially in light of what happened in New Berlin last night, this stance about our own handbook doesn't instill confidence.

Through all of this I have had one nagging question in my mind: Where is our union? Another repercussion of Walker's "budgetary" changes is that the mission of the teacher's union is clearly no longer the furthering of public education; it is too busy trying to preserve itself. I understand that from WEAC's point of view this is necessary. The tactics, however, have been enough to make me question my continued membership. A public shaming of those who hadn't signed up by the end of the last school year (lead by one of our local co-presidents) and the fact that our district was in turmoil at the end of last year and state level WEAC representatives and UniServ workers only came by to give us a sales pitch makes it clear what the priorities are there. I know they didn't have answers, and I know that there were many schools going through the same turmoil. Yet, I can't help but feel ignored and under-served.

In May the teachers of Mauston received the second loyalty pledge of the year. This one came from WEAC in the form of an “Outstanding Balance” statement for a 2011-2012 membership. This document also contains a break down of where my $822 will go. Only $85 of that stays with the local union. Now, when we need to focus on what is happening at the local level so intently why is so much of the money for our dues going to the state and national level? I understand that there is work being done at those levels that this money finances. Some of that work I strongly disagree with though (such as NEA and WEAC embracing teacher evaluations).

I have signed up to maintain my membership for this year primarily because of fear of social stigmatization and because of the "pre-paid legal" aspect of WEAC membership. I have seen the quality of that legal service, and I'm not convinced that it is worth $85 let alone $822. I am seriously considering pulling my membership before the school year is out; I know I am not alone. It also needs to be said that with my reduced pay, the $70 per month is now even more significant. If I saw my investment in WEAC paying dividends, I could make due with the loss; paying for representation at any level that doesn't support my beliefs seems ridiculous.

If/when I do pull my membership, it is very important that my fellow teachers understand something. I will always stand beside them -- if they will allow me to. I do not support my colleagues because we are all WEAC card holders. I support them because we are all doing a difficult job that demands we support each other or be completely ineffective.

More importantly, we are all navigating a life full of infinite complexity. What more than that do we need in common? As many of you know, I experienced two great losses in the last year and a half. My fellow teachers where there to support me through it all. I was struck by a simple truth this summer as I worked on the task of organizing and editing ten years of collected digital images. One image from the February 16, 2011 rally in Madison caught my eye. The woman in the picture is holding a sign that reads: "I'm a member of the union of human beings; I stand with you." This is exactly the feeling that has grown in me over the last few months. I support the people I work with because we are all in this together.

At our recent union meeting, biting language and judgmental expressions were aimed at teachers who have dropped their union membership; this was distasteful and seems misdirected. People were being judged based upon a different belief or set of priorities; their interpretation of the facts of their life pointed away from union membership. They aren't wrong, just different. If MEA/WEAC/NEA continue down this path, we won't have to worry about administrators or school boards destroying the profession. We will accomplish that on our own.

I have also found reasons to question my continued support of WEAC because of the history of WEAC and Wisconsin's labor movements. The most important event is the the Hortonville teacher strike of 1974. The teachers who went on strike and stayed on strike (84 of 88) were fired by the school board. In 1978, the United States Supreme Court ruled that it was not a conflict of interest for the Hortonville school board to act as arbitrator in the disciplinary hearings against the striking teachers. The ruling states that the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment was not violated by the process the Hortonville school board used.

This decision sealed the fate of our union. In the decades since then, local teacher unions have been recognized as the body capable of negotiating work conditions and pay packages for its members. Binding arbitration meant that both parties had to sit down and negotiate. There was no other option aside from bringing in an outside arbitrator. This system worked well for the local school boards and the state because they didn't have to worry any more about teachers going on strike (as it is illegal) and as long as they gave teachers a little bit of a raise every couple years no one complained. Not until the Qualified Economic Offer (QEO) were there teacher strikes again. Those strikes were also far less divisive to the communities they happened in. The QEO limited yearly total package increases to 3.8% per year. With only few exceptions, negotiations in this time rarely went beyond whether the teachers wanted the 3.8% to go to benefits or salary. Typically, most of the 3.8% was used up in maintaining existing benefit packages. Rising health care costs meant that those benefits were also slowly eaten away (especially in the last 15 years). Strikes and other work actions are simply no longer an option; most people can't afford to get fired and the union has no way to protect teachers from that consequence.

Aside from violence (which is almost always counterproductive), the only true "tool" a union has is work stoppage. With that off the table we are left with only one avenue for changing our lot. We need to educate the people about the necessity and importance of education. People need to know why we have chosen to go into education. The value of an educated populace needs to be made clear. Those kinds of lessons can really only be taught over time while being in close contact with people. WEAC's mission is noble but the burden to maintain itself and the complexity of this new situation makes it ineffective. We need to be acting systematically at a local level; I see WEAC not being able to support that mission.

WEAC talks about advocacy and they spent quite a sum on a big advertising campaign last year (a planned campaign that started before Walker's shenanigans) that boasted of its 98,000 members. Those behaviors, however, are more typical of a professional organization or a marketing board. Perhaps another reason I am considering whether or not I will continue to be a member is that it isn't clear to me what WEAC will become. Or will they continue to try to be some blend of marketing board, professional organization, and union.

A marketing board does just that; they promote the group or industry they represent. The Cattlemen's Beef Board for example brings you the "Beef, It's What's For Dinner" advertisements. WEAC, then WEA, started as a third type of group in 1853; it was a professional organization. A professional organization can be much more than a simple marketing machine. They can be involved in regulation and licensing of professionals in a career field for example. Perhaps WEAC and NEA will take on this role since they have been so quick to embrace the teacher evaluation/merit pay approach. Regardless of what it becomes, WEAC is no longer purely a union and it hasn't been since 1978 when the right to strike was stripped away and never regained.

WEAC and NEA are still politically significant and have the potential to influence a lot of decisions that will happen in the years to come. That power, however, does not come from individuals standing together at the local level; the power comes primarily from marketing and lobbying. Embracing “teacher evaluation and accountability” has little to do with what is best for educators, schools, students, or communities and everything to do with political maneuvering. Perhaps another question I have is what influence can I have over the direction of WEAC/NEA? I do not support the direction WEAC and NEA are heading right now. How can I change that? The existing evidence tells me that I cannot.

The union I feel abandoned me, never really existed. When I was longing for action I was hoping for something that was never going to happen. Until or unless the situation gets so bad that we all are willing to risk losing our jobs we cannot and will not have a true union. I wish I could go back to the feeling I had last January when WEAC was like a security blanket. The true fight for union rights didn't start in February of 2011. It was started in 1974 and mostly abandoned in 1978. Instead of demanding our rights we have been settling for various forms of political compromise for over three decades.

I can pay my $822 and pretend that the union will do what is right or I can keep the money and actually work with my fellow teachers on the issues that affect us locally. When I see a fellow teacher being treated poorly, I can keep my head down and say, “oh the union will take care of it.” Or worse yet, “Serves her right for dropping her union membership.” I feel guilty about responding this way in the past. We all know teachers who were driven out of a job while we sat silent; we sat silent, in part, because our “union” told us not to worry or take any risk by getting involved. My guilt alone, however, isn't likely to make me speak out in the future; I know I cannot live up to this high ideal because the potential risks still outweigh any potential benefits I might achieve. A union requires that self preservation be inextricably linked to preservation of the group and all of the individuals in it. The economic, political, and societal realities of today make this difficult to achieve.

I understand that I haven't presented answers here. I don't have any feasible plans for how we should proceed. I simply know that what we are doing now will not get us where we want to go; bottling up my feelings and trying to ignore them would only make me bitter. Trying to ignore the systemic problems we have will only make them worse as well. My local school board and my union aren't helping me to achieve my professional or career goals. I don't think I have ever been less certain about the future of education or about my role as an educator than I am at the start of this school year. Amy Tan wrote about her difficulty in returning to writing after a serious illness: “I wanted to feel grateful again to be part of the world. Gratitude led to a generosity of spirit, and that was what my soul required so I could write.” I will have to dig deep to find things to be grateful about so that when I am standing in front of my students on Thursday (and every day this year) I can freely give my best.


Big Labor In A Small Town: The Hortonville Teachers' Strike
(-This link seems to be dead and I cannot find another link on the UW-GB site for this article. I have a saved copy.  If you want to read it, let me know.)

Ending Collective Bargaining Would Risk Return To Teacher Strikes
WEAC History Book

Wisconsin Labor History

Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 111: Employment Relations

Wisconsin State Statutes Chapter 118: General School Operations

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