End of Session Not End of Union Hypocrisy

By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

The end of the legislative session always brings an amount of weirdness to the Capitol and this year was no exception. The full moon always shines on the last few overnight sessions. Strange alliances form and dissipate in the moonbeams, not to mention the local taverns.

This year we were witness to the strange tripartite alliance of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) administration, and Governor Scott Walker. In the immortal words of Dr. Peter Venkman, “…dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!”

MTEA and MPS missed the window of opportunity this year wherein they could amend their contract without the provisions of Act 10 throwing out the collective bargaining agreement entirely. MPS needed concessions this year from the union, and for once MTEA was willing to cooperate. Hence the need for the legislature to reopen the window under which MTEA and MPS could negotiate while still keeping in place the collective bargaining agreement.

It’s worth remembering how MPS and MTEA found themselves in this position. The current collective bargaining agreement between MPS and MTEA still covers benefits and other issues that Act 10 made no longer part of the collective bargaining process. That is because MPS and MTEA signed a contract despite (or because of) knowing that major changes were coming in collective bargaining in Wisconsin, and they wanted a long-term contract in place instead.

Since then, MPS has asked the union for concessions in order to stave off layoffs and the union has twice said no. The first time layoffs were avoided because of federal money, the so-called teachers bailout.

Now MPS has been presented with an unexpected bill for $10 million from the City of Milwaukee’s pension system. Even though the bill came due earlier this year during the period when contracts could be adjusted without Act 10 coming into play, MPS and the union waited before sending a letter to the legislature asking the window to be re-opened.

MPS and the union have a plan. If the teachers agree to forgo five days of pay they could avoid layoffs. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the agreement would mean more than $7 million for the district. MTEA President Bob Peterson, ignoring the fungible nature of money, said the money would go direct to the classroom and not to the pension fund. MTEA would not want the appearance of a concession of teachers paying more for their pensions in this political season.

While Peterson was walking the very fine line, his fellow union bosses were a little more blunt about the MTEA-MPS concession plan. Union leaders from Madison, Kenosha, Green Bay and Racine sent a furious letter to Peterson demanding that he retract his letter to the legislature. It was not because the other union leaders had a sudden revelation of what was best for the students in MPS. It was because they feared, “Such legislation will enable Governor Walker to claim victory of his policy to reign (sic) in public employee wages and benefits.”

The letter adds, “Allowing Governor Walker to make such a claim just before the recall election will prove detrimental to recalling him and, therefore, will only enhance his ability to further harm all Wisconsin public employees.”

There are so many points about this letter with which we should be concerned, including the inability of professional educators to know the difference between “reign” and “rein.” However, it’s clear from the letter that the four unions are more concerned about the former than the latter.

It’s no coincidence that three of the four unions that penned the letter to Peterson are unions that signed contracts with their school districts to avoid the provisions of Act 10 that would have restricted collective bargaining to wages. In addition, the Madison teachers were responsible for a “sick out” that forced schools there to close for four days while the union members helped fuel the protests in the wake of Act 10’s passage.

It’s also worth noting that the Madison school district just defeated a charter school at the behest of the union, that Green Bay narrowly avoided a school choice program, and that the Racine Unified School District is struggling to come to grips with real competition from a choice program.

All four districts have been on the cutting edge of teachers union vs. education politics. It was only natural for them to be willing to sacrifice the good of the Milwaukee Public Schools and MTEA’s members for their own political power.

The legislature passed the legislation needed to allow MTEA and MPS to use the tools to complete their negotiations, despite the pleas from the unions not to allow Governor Scott Walker a victory.

Here was hard evidence of what is really important to the unions. Call it an educational opportunity, for all of Wisconsin.