It happened on a Monday during my second year of teaching science in a Wisconsin public school. The Packers had just won the Super Bowl and my colleagues were rubbing it in when someone came up to me and said, “Have you heard about Act 10?”
Act 10 was the legislation that stripped away the collective bargaining rights of unions of public employees in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature passed the law in the fall of 2011 – my third year of teaching. Everyone in education immediately felt it.
I had due process protection, or tenure, for two weeks. I went from a $0 co-pay on my insurance to having a $2,000 deductible, to having a $4,000 deductible. My administrators cut my prep time in half, so I had to rush to set up experiments. Sometimes we just skipped labs altogether. That’s no way to teach science.
The memories of my experiences under Act 10 in Wisconsin came flooding back when I heard the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the case called Janus v. AFSCME. The National Right to Work Foundation is asking the court to overturn decades of precedent and force unions of public employees to offer the benefits of a negotiated contract free of charge.
It happened in Iowa too
If the court agrees, I’m sure it will hurt unions everywhere. Weakened unions create the conditions for state legislatures to enact their own versions of Act 10. It happened in Iowa earlier this year. It took just 10 days. It could happen in Minnesota, too.
Back in Wisconsin, I remember our negotiated contract became a handbook. The politicians told us we were now “free agents.” They said, “Go negotiate your own compensation!” But when I asked my superintendent what he could do for me. He said, “Nothing.” The law said we could negotiate for only our base salaries – and no increase could surpass inflation.
The law and the big-money ad campaign that went with it completely decimated morale in my district. We felt we were being blamed for everyone else’s problems. When they take your dignity, teaching isn’t fun anymore. As teachers retired, the districts wouldn’t hire anyone to replace them. The duties and workload increased for the rest of us.
It all hurt students in the end. I don’t think anyone even tries to deny it anymore.
I was able to find work in Minnesota, but I was one of the lucky ones. Many of my colleagues had invested in a home in their community, had kids going to school in the district. It’s a big deal to uproot your family for a new job. I had the opportunity to leave and I did.
In Houston, Minnesota, a raise and hope
In 2012, I returned to the district in Houston, Minnesota, where I had spent a year before my time in Wisconsin. I immediately received an $11,000 raise, but it wasn’t really about the money. Sure, I had bills to pay just like everyone else, but it was about more than that. It was about hope.
A negotiated contract gives you control over some things in your work environment. It gives you a say in your benefits and class size. It comes with a degree of professional respect. Taking that away has a trickle-down effect on communities, schools and classrooms.
The middle class is in decline in Wisconsin. Median salaries are down 14 percent. Many veteran teachers have retired, midcareer teachers are fleeing the state and enrollment in teacher licensing programs is down almost 30 percent from 2010. I saw what happened to my own students.
While there’s not much an average Minnesotan can do about what happens at the U.S. Supreme Court, we do have some control over who becomes the next governor. We need to ask all the candidates what they think about what happened to unions of public employees in Wisconsin and Iowa. If the politicians won’t support the people who work for the public good, what good will come from supporting those politicians?
Marty Momsen teaches science in Houston public schools.
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