The Fall and Rise of WEAC
Once mighty state teachers union has lost its clout, yet many members stick with it.
How the mighty have fallen.
In September 2016, the news broke that the Wisconsin Education Association Council was selling its fancy headquarters on Nob Hill in Madison for $6.9 million. Its 51,000-square-foot building with lovely views of Madison and nearly 40 acres of land housed a huge staff that had helped oversee local teachers groups and shape public policy across Wisconsin.
WEAC was one of the most powerful forces in state elections and unquestionably the top lobbyist. As recently as the 2009-2010 budget period, it had spent $2.49 million on lobbying, about three times more than its top counterpart on the right, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which spent nearly $856,000 in that same two-year period.
But then came the election of Scott Walker and a Republican Legislature in 2010, and the passage of Act 10, which decimated collective bargaining rights for all public unions in Wisconsin except the police and fire fighters. No one was hit harder than WEAC.
Before Act 10, WEAC had 98,000 dues paying members; today that number is down to 40,000, as the Wisconsin State Journal has reported.
Before Act 10, WEAC was collecting $23.5 million in annual dues from teachers who were union members, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported; today that is down to $9.3 million, according to the group’s most recent federal tax form for the 2014/15 year.
Before Act 10, WEAC had a staff of at least 140 employees, but it sent layoff notices to 42 employees not long after the law was passed, the JS reported. Since then the number of staff dropped from 98 in the 2012/13 year to 47 in 2014/15, its federal tax forms show.
GOP Sen. Luther Olsen of Ripon, a key member of the Assembly and then Senate education committees for two decades, told the State Journal that WEAC has no impact now: “Honestly, I never see (WEAC officials) in the Capitol anymore,” he said. “I don’t even know who their lobbyist is.”
WEAC also has lost clout in elections. It spent around $550,000 on TV and radio ads in 2009 to help elect Tony Evers over school voucher proponent Rose Fernandez, as the State Journal noted, but is unlikely to have such money on hand for future elections. Decimating the political power of WEAC and other public employee unions was the real goal of Act 10, union leaders have argued. Certainly it has made it all-but-impossible for Democratic candidates to match the campaign spending of Republicans.
Free-market advocates might argue that teachers unions aren’t needed and their salaries should simply be set by the market. But there isn’t a consumer marketplace determining teacher salaries; it all depends on what taxpayers will support. And those salaries were abysmal until the rise of strong teachers unions in the 1970s.
Under the aggressive leadership of longtime WEAC executive director Morris Andrews, Wisconsin rose to become one of the top-spending states on public education. By the late 1980s, as I’ve previously reported, Wisconsin spent 47 percent more than the average state in per-pupil expenditures. Wisconsin was among the top 10 states in average teacher salaries.
But that changed greatly after Republican Tommy Thompson became governor: He got state legislation passed that limited how much school districts could increase spending, and that allowed school districts to evade an arbitrator’s ruling in collective bargaining disputes if the district offered at least a 3.8 percent increase in the total value of salaries and benefits, at a time when inflation averaged 3 percent annually.
Thompson’s approach ended the days of big contract gains for teachers. By 2007-08, Wisconsin had dropped to nearly the median in school spending, with per-pupil expenditures of $10,791, just 4.7 percent higher than the national average of $10,297. As for salaries, Wisconsin’s teachers ranked 23rd nationally, at 93 percent of the average pay nationally.
Then came Act 10, which significantly reduced compensation for teachers, along with their collective bargaining rights. The result is a growing shortage of teachers, as a study by the Public Policy Forum and a report by the Wisconsin Budget Project have found.
Under Act 10, unions have no right to bargain over benefits and can only bargain for salaries up to the rate of inflation, so there is little they can gain for members’ pocketbooks. Meanwhile, unions must annually win a majority vote not of those teachers voting but of all teachers in the district, a seemingly impossible hurdle that no politician running for office is required to jump.
As Mother Jones recently reported, “these annual elections can cost thousands of dollars and force unions to run full-scale phone-banking operations. Last year, 11 WEAC affiliates lost recertification votes. In the small eastern Wisconsin town of New Holstein, all 42 teachers who voted backed recertification, but there were another 42 members who didn’t vote, so the local union disappeared.”
In short, it’s quite remarkable that WEAC, as of its most recent federal tax form, had still retained about 40 percent of its dues-paying members. Many of the local affiliates may be disbanded, but of those left, teachers are voting overwhelmingly for their unions. As WEAC’s website noted last week, “Ninety-six percent of 2017 recertification elections for WEAC locals passed this fall,” according to results released by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
In fact Madison Teachers Inc. has moved its offices to the WEAC headquarters, as has has the Region 6 district of WEAC, according to Christina Brey, spokeswoman for WEAC. As a result, the organization is no longer looking to sell off its headquarters, she says.
How has WEAC managed to stave off its elimination? Brey says it’s all about moving its focus to the local level and emphasizing grass-roots organizing.
“We’re learning how to introduce ourselves to a whole new generation of teachers. They’re definitely not as familiar with unions,” Brey says.
Three key selling points for WEAC, she says, are that the union can “influence collectively what happens in the local schools” and the policies affecting teachers and their classrooms; offer professional development and training for teachers; and provide political advocacy for them. For instance, WEAC and other teacher groups are actively opposing the federal tax plan, which Brey says could reduce the number of teaching jobs in Wisconsin by 4,000 through the elimination of federal tax deductions for state and local taxes paid.
All of which suggests that WEAC is far from dead, and that many teachers still value their unions. The full details of that story have yet to be told.
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