State Watch

True Confessions in Wisconsin

Teachers' unions admit Gov. Walker's reforms are working.

By 3.15.12

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When debate over public unions flared up in Wisconsin last year, educators claimed Gov. Scott Walker's austere reforms would require thousands of teachers to be laid off.

They were wrong.

With small changes in pension and healthcare contributions while allowing school districts to buy health insurance plans on the open market, Walker's reforms have resulted in what could be considered a statewide teacher-retention program. School districts such as Wauwatosa, hometown of Governor Walker and the Weekly Standard's Fox News star Stephen Hayes, faced a $6.5 million deficit and planned to lay off dozens of teachers. But Walker's reforms allowed all those teachers to remain employed.

At other large school districts such as LaCrosse, Racine, Wausau, and Beloit, if there were any layoffs at all, they were limited to two or fewer. And in addition to retaining teachers, the reforms have instituted merit-based pay systems that allow excellent teachers to be rewarded.

However, not all school districts adopted Walker's reforms so readily. Milwaukee's school district, which is immediately east of Wauwatosa, rammed through a union contact in December, just in time to avoid being subject to the reforms.

Now it appears the Milwaukee district is reconsidering its hasty action.

After the City of Milwaukee announced last week that Milwaukee Public Schools would have to contribute almost 10 million additional dollars to the city's pension plan (which covers non-teaching employees, such as engineers and educational assistants), the Milwaukee teachers union made the unusual move to write a joint letter with the non-union school board and administration, requesting an additional 30 days to negotiate compensation and benefits.

This request comes on the heels of a 90-day window between November and February to adjust teacher contracts. As the legislation signed by Walker, known as Act 10 and Act 65, makes it impossible to alter existing agreements without nullifying them, a decision to extend this window will have to be made very soon, as the Wisconsin legislature's general session completes its work today.

However, no matter how badly reforms are necessary, other union leaders are not happy with the Milwaukee teachers union for essentially admitting that Gov. Walker was right, especially before the recall election.

On Tuesday, teacher union leaders who are heavily involved in the recall fired off a letter to Milwaukee teacher union (MTEA) leaders Bob Peterson and Sid Hatch. It made their political concerns crystal clear:

Dear Brothers:

We write to express our grave concern that MTEA has asked their legislators to introduce and work to pass legislation which would enable MTEA and the Milwaukee Public Schools to enter into an agreement in which MTEA would make economic concessions such as those enacted by Governor Walker's WI Act 10.

The undersigned believe that such legislation would be detrimental to our members' best interests: i.e. our Districts would likely push for similar legislation, given the precedent established by MTEA. Further, we believe such legislation will have an adverse impact on all Wisconsin public employees. Such legislation will enable Governor Walker to claim victory of his policy to reign [sic] in public employee wages and benefits. Because he did not adequately fund education, we are all currently suffering. 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.

We ask that you immediately withdraw your request for this legislation.

The letter was signed by union representatives: 

Peggy Coyne, Madison Teachers, Inc. President
John Matthews, MTI Executive Director
Mary B. Modder, Kenosha Education Association President
Joe Kiriski, KEA Executive Director
Toni Lardinois, Green Bay Education Association President
Keith Patt, GBEA Executive Director
Pete Knotek, Racine Education Association President
Jack Bernfeld, REA Executive Director

Asked for a reaction, Brian Fraley, communications director at the MacIver Institute, a Wisconsin-based conservative organization that uncovered the letter, did not mince words: "This letter is physical proof of what many in Wisconsin have long speculated: That big labor is incredibly worried about citizens here finding out that the reforms are working."

Gov. Walker's spokesman Cullen Werwier added, "The latest letter from public sector union bosses shows clearly that Democrats and their allies put their politics before everything else, even their own members' jobs. The letter clearly shows how they will put politics before people."

Wisconsin Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski declined to comment to TAS on the story, noting he had limited information about the letter as of Wednesday afternoon.

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About the Author

Matt Naugle writes about state governments for The American Spectator.