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Law & Courts

Wisconsin Teachers Sue to Restore Collective Bargaining Rights

By Madeline Will — December 01, 2023 6 min read
Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) vice president Betsy Kippers leads a chant during a rally to protest Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill, at the Brown County Courthouse in downtown Green Bay on February 16, 2011.
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More than a decade after Wisconsin lawmakers severely restricted collective bargaining for most public employees, unions representing teachers and other public workers in the state are suing to reverse course.

Seven unions and three individuals, including a high school social studies teacher, filed suit on Thursday in a county circuit court, arguing that the 2011 law, known as Act 10, was unconstitutional and discriminatory in nature. The law had carved out an exception for unions representing public safety employees, such as police officers and firefighters.

Otherwise, the law dealt a significant blow to organized labor in the state. It made it so teachers’ unions could only bargain over base wage increases no greater than inflation, required an annual recertification vote for every local union, and prohibited school districts from deducting union dues from employees’ paychecks.

Act 10 also increased the amount employees had to pay for health insurance and retirement benefits.

The law, which was championed by former Republican Gov. Scott Walker, has been challenged unsuccessfully in court before. But the political context has changed: The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently flipped to liberal control for the first time in 15 years.

“The time has to be now,” said Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, of overturning Act 10. She pointed to record levels of teacher turnover in the state and a declining interest in the profession—a trend reflected across the country, including in states with strong union rights.

“That lack of voice, that lack of ability to speak up without tremendous fear of retribution is absolutely a factor,” she said. “Having a real seat at the table again for our educators again is critically important.”

Act 10 is associated with a steep decline in Wisconsin’s union membership, which is now at its lowest level since at least 1989, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Meanwhile, Walker told the Associated Press that the lawsuit was brought by “union bosses” attempting to regain power and that the law has been upheld by multiple federal and state courts. “It is constitutional, and it is working,” he said.

Teachers’ unions say the law has had negative consequences

The Abbotsford Education Association is among the plaintiffs. According to the lawsuit, the local union had won nine consecutive annual recertification elections, with more than 51 percent of the teachers in the bargaining unit voting yes.

But this year, the union lost the election, so it no longer represents teachers in the district. Twenty-nine members of the bargaining unit did not vote, and the union received “yes” votes from 50.8 percent of voters—falling a hair short of the 51 percent required to win.

Other plaintiffs are the Beaver Dam Education Association and Matthew Ziebarth, a high school teacher in the Beaver Dam Unified district who serves as that union’s chief negotiator. They argue in the lawsuit that Act 10 has curtailed their ability to bargain for economic and non-economic terms and conditions of employment, outside of employees’ base wages.

Those conditions could include class sizes, planning periods or other scheduling, professional development, and supplements to teachers’ pay.

Ziebarth has had to devote “considerable time and effort” to contacting employees and organizing get-out-the-vote campaigns to win the union’s annual recertification election, the lawsuit argues. His efforts would be better served improving working conditions in the district, the suit says.

The law might have also had a negative effect on students, said Bradley Marianno, an associate professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He cited research that showed student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, declined after Act 10’s passage.

“The prevailing theory [among researchers] is that experienced teachers left the profession,” he said, so “students are no longer being taught by highly qualified, most experienced teachers.”

Research published by the journal Education Next this fall painted a more complex picture. Some districts in the state opted to use the flexibility offered by Act 10 to depart from traditional salary schedules that are based on experience and academic credentials and instead pay effective teachers more.

The research found that the effectiveness of teachers who remained in these flexible-pay districts increased after this reform was implemented. But in some districts, a gender wage gap emerged, with male teachers earning more than their female counterparts.

And the study noted that the gains of the flexible-pay districts came at the expense of districts which stuck to the traditional salary schedule—which could lead to inequities in terms of which students had access to highly effective teachers.

Lawmakers in other states will be paying attention

Act 10 was at the forefront of Republican efforts across the country to curtail collective bargaining rights for public sector employees, Marianno said. The law passed during a wave of similarly themed legislation in states, especially those in which legislatures flipped to Republicans during the 2010 midterms.

“Historically, Wisconsin teachers were some of the first to receive collective bargaining rights and in modern times, were one of the first to have it pulled away,” he said.

Now, the conservative effort to weaken teachers’ union influence in schools is focused on eliminating payroll-deduction services. Republican lawmakers in several states have introduced bills to that effect this year, arguing that it’s not necessary for public school districts to be involved in financial transactions on behalf of unions. Unions say these measures make it more challenging to keep members.

See also

Close up shot of some money overlapping a partial paystub revealing some blurred numbers and the words Total Pay, Taxes, and Deductions.
iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession Lawmakers Target How Teachers’ Unions Collect Dues
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Many of these bills exclude unions for public safety employees, like police officers. Those employees are a “significant voting bloc” for Republicans, Marianno said.

The lawsuit argues that there’s no real difference between public safety employees and other public workers, and that Act 10 was designed to punish Walker’s political opponents and reward his supporters.

“By arbitrarily picking and choosing employees for its discriminatorily favored and disfavored groups, the Legislature did not equally or consistently apply its own discriminatory classification scheme,” the lawsuit contends.

If the case reaches the Wisconsin Supreme Court and the justices rule in favor of the plaintiffs, that could set an important precedent, Marianno said.

“Republican lawmakers, who are typically the authors of these types of reform, will be taking note with what happens in Wisconsin,” he said. “It’s going to change the way these policies are drafted. ... It’s unlikely they’ll be able to continue to [carve out exceptions] if the Wisconsin lawsuit is successful.”

At the time of the law’s passage, a group that represents superintendents in the state said Act 10 went “way too far.”

But Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican, told the AP that repealing the law—which includes higher employee contributions toward benefits—could bankrupt schools.

Wirtz-Olsen said the state has a $4 billion surplus that could be directed toward the public education system. And restoring collective bargaining rights would allow teachers to improve conditions for their students, she said.

“Having the opportunity to be those strong advocates for our students again would be a tremendous move forward in Wisconsin for the education workforce,” she said.

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