Kenosha Teachers – Free To Choose

Did KEA’s Refusal to Renegotiate in 2011 and Subsequent Lay Off of 200 Teachers Lead to Teachers Voting Against Certification?

by James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute

As the school year gets underway, one school district is finally catching up to the rest of the state. The effect? The state’s third largest teachers union, the Kenosha Education Association (KEA), was decertified with the expiration of the August deadline.

There seems to be some dispute over how the decertification happened. In order to maintain their certification, the union was required to have the support of 50 percent of the union members by August 30th. According to Milwaukee radio talk show host Mark Belling, the union was only able to get the support of 37% of the membership, far below what was needed. The union claims that they made no effort towards recertification, claiming that they do not need recertification to function.

That’s not what the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission says. Under Governor Scott Walker’s public employee union reform known as Act 10, public employee unions (including teachers unions) can no longer collectively bargain on issues such working conditions and benefits. Now that the KEA has been decertified, the union can no longer collectively bargain on wages, too.

If the union did decide not to seek recertification, they picked an odd time to do so. The union was in negotiations with the district regarding a wage increase for employees. Indeed, the union had indicated on its website that negotiations would begin with the district once the actual amount of state aid was known.

“Once the District’s enrollment is determined and the actual amount of state aid known, we will be able to sit down with the District and see what can be done about providing some sort of fair wage increase for the teaching staff and ESP’s while maintaining a balanced District budget.”

Now the district is free to implement a salary increase package that is smaller than what the union wanted without the input of the union.

The reasons given by the union for not seeking certification are interesting even as they change. The first explanation they gave was reminiscent of the chant in the movie, “Meatballs,” it just doesn’t matter. In an online letter from KEA Executive Director Joseph Kiriaki, “The union exists with or without a recertification vote. Period.”

Kiriaki is counting on the decision by Dane County Circuit Court Judge Juan Colas that Act 10 in unconstitutional. However, the KEA was not a party to the lawsuit and, as attorney Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty wrote recently, the effective limit of Colas’ decision is only on the parties involved. Also, the case is headed to the state Supreme Court where it’s likely they will rule that Act 10 is constitutional.

The other curious response by the KEA is that they did not want to “jump through the hoops” of recertification. Kiriaki told the Kenosha News that the process would be to distracting. “It would take away from what our members do best — teach.”

Christina Brey of the Wisconsin Education Association Council echoed the “hoops” statement in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying that Kenosha was not an unusual situation. “It seems like the majority of our affiliates in the state aren’t seeking recertification, so I don’t think the KEA is an outlier or unique in this.”

Yet the state’s two largest teachers unions did complete recertification on time. There is also no denying the symbolic importance of the state’s third largest teachers union failing to recertify.

Until recently, the Kenosha school district has missed out on the reforms of Act 10. The school district unwisely chose to sign a long-term contract with the teachers union before Act 10 could go into effect.

That decision ended up hurting the district and union members alike. While other districts were able to take advantage of the savings in Act 10 to offset the cuts in state aid, the Kenosha Unified School District was unable to get the union to renegotiate the contract. In 2011, the district issued layoff notices to 212 full-time teaching positions, which may help explain why many union members were not feeling well-represented by the KEA.
The contract finally expired in June of this year, hence the need for a new wage agreement.
By not recertifying, the KEA goes from being protected from the effects of Act 10 to not being able to even collectively bargain on wages.

However, the KEA may still be in the denial stage of grieving. Kiriaki recently told the Kenosha News that all teachers, including new hires, should still consider themselves part of the union, and they should be paying union dues collected by the Kenosha school district.

The district, however, is only collecting dues from those teachers that fill out forms asking for the dues to be deducted from their paychecks. Despite what Kiriaki believes, Kenosha teachers are now free to choose.