Collective bargaining is all but illegal for public sector workers in Wisconsin. So how did Milwaukee teachers not only block major cuts to public schools but also make gains on workload and health care?
At the height of the red-state teacher strikes in April and May, teachers and school employees in Milwaukee passed around a petition at school committing that to win their demands, they were ready to “do whatever it takes.”
The clear subtext: illegal or not, teachers might walk out. “We were assessing our collective willingness to step out further than we have before,” said Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Amy Mizialko, “including shutting down schools.”
In May the district blinked. Management backed off its proposed 5 percent cut to schools budget and cuts to health care, and it reduced the hours of administrative busywork. It even added health care for full-time substitute teachers and accelerated a path to $15 an hour for school employees.
That peak came after months of escalating actions. This spring teachers packed school board meetings, occupied the school board’s office, and mobilized thousands of union members and allies to protest outside district headquarters.
“Take a Pause”
Since 2011’s Act 10, public sector bargaining in Wisconsin is limited to one topic—salaries, with increases capped at the rate of inflation. All other issues are off the table. And strikes are prohibited, with heavy monetary penalties or potential injunctions intended to scare unions off.
Act 10 also forced teachers and school employees to pay more into their pension and their health care plans.
Instead of a collective bargaining agreement, in 2013 the Milwaukee district shifted to a handbook. In the process it eliminated previous union salary schedules, with raises now at the discretion of the school board. It also increased the time teachers have to sit in staff meetings or professional development from two hours a month to 12.
At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the superintendent told MTEA teachers and school employees they were going to have to “take a pause” on raises and other benefits to make up for the budget shortfall.
“People have been on a five-year pause,” said Mizialko. “Wages have been stagnant.”
After protests in the fall, the board moved to a compromise: a meager raise of 0.4 percent. But the superintendent announced that the following year, to close a projected $30 million gap, teachers could expect a small raise balanced by 5 percent cuts to schools and changes to their health care, including cutting off spouses from coverage and increasing premiums and co-pays.
Let Us Teach
MTEA leaders decided it wasn’t enough to fight back against these concessions—they needed to make some forward movement on long-simmering issues. The union chose priorities based on a bargaining survey and what members had been saying for years.
One of the issues teachers felt strongest about was the 12 hours a month of mandatory administrative time. Instead of planning lessons or grading papers at the end of the day, teachers were stuck in administrative meetings or professional development classes.
“It takes away our planning time,” said Head Start teacher Shari Redell. Teachers complain the so-called professional development is often scripted and standardized, with no teacher input, and not applicable to teachers of different grade levels and subjects. Members gathered more than 3,000 petition signatures on this topic and delivered them at one of the many packed school board meetings.
For teacher Angela Harris, the top priority was to address the poverty wages paid to many school employees. “I think about paraprofessionals having to work two jobs,” she said, “so tired because they’ve worked the night before until 10 p.m.”
MTEA has been pushing the district to raise the pay of educational assistants, including paraprofessionals who work alongside teachers in the classroom. The school board had agreed to a four-year path to $15, but MTEA wanted to accelerate it to three years.
One more demand was for health care for substitute teachers. In May, substitute teacher and MTEA board member Alex Brower launched a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until health benefits were offered for full-time subs. Members joined him in short solidarity fasts for the duration of his three-week strike.
Storm the School Board
Milwaukee teachers have a recent history of militancy. Already they have fought off several attempts at a state takeover of district schools, most recently in 2016, by packing school board meetings and holding “walk-ins,” where union members and parents hold earlymorning pickets before teachers walk into school as a group.
But Mizialko knew that winning this time would require the school board “seeing us in numbers they had never seen before.” That meant not just filling the audience at school board meetings with hundreds of members as they’ve done in the past. “It’s one thing to fill up a room with 300 people, then 500,” said Mizialko. “But [it’s another] when you bring 1,400 and there are no overflow rooms left,” she said, describing one April school board meeting where MTEA members poured into the building.
In another action, union members and community allies picketed outside the district office. The crowd was so big it shut down the street. “We had 4,000 people picketing,” said Redell. “Police closed Vliet Street for four blocks. They weren’t expecting that many people.”
With the Rufus King High School drumline marching alongside, demonstrators chanted “This is a public meeting, let us in!” and “Whose schools? Our schools!” Eventually they pushed their way inside and disrupted meetings.
Whatever It Takes
At the beginning of April, Superintendent Darienne Driver announced she was stepping down. This was good news—Driver was the one who had proposed the budget cuts, and she had given raises to administrators even while claiming the district was too poor to give them to teachers.
In May, as the union continued to escalate its tactics, the school board hired an interim superintendent with a more labor-friendly track record, who agreed to balance the budget by cutting from administration, not from schools.
In the end, administrative time for teachers was cut down from 12 to four hours per month. Professional development curricula will be created at schools, with input from teachers, rather than at the district’s central office.
Educational assistants won back a salary schedule, and the district committed to begin talks on restoring teachers’ salary schedules next year. Full-time substitute teachers will be eligible to apply for 125 new positions with health care benefits.
“For whatever period of time Wisconsin doesn’t have collective bargaining, we pick up and organize in other ways,” said Mizialko. “There’s always ways to win. That can’t be legislated away.”
Get Students Back
One more victory: this summer the new superintendent is working with the union on a joint enrollment campaign that has brought 3,000 new students into Milwaukee public schools for the upcoming school year.
The union has spent past summers enrolling families in public schools on its own. It’s one way to bring back funds and counter the privatization trend, in the city with the nation’s longest-standing voucher program.
What’s next? This fall, it’s on MTEA’s to-do list to vote out Governor Scott Walker, the man who pushed through Act 10, cut half a billion dollars from public schools the same year, and has redirected public money toward charter schools and vouchers.
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