The Importance of Strong Unions: Lessons from Wisconsin

Vivian McCaffrey

When Mary Bell became the president of the Wisconsin teachers’ union in 2007, she didn’t envisage she’d be leading a grassroots battle against a government assault on public sector unions. Wisconsin workers had some cause to be complacent about their bargaining rights. “We’ve had collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin for over 50 years. We had the first collective bargaining law in the States. No one expected that in four days they could wipe it out,” said Bell, referring to a series of initiatives imposed by the state government.

ETFO invited Bell, an educator for 33 years, to address a November collective bargaining training session for locals. Public sector workers in Ontario haven’t experienced the same level of attack on their rights as their American counterparts, but we are facing a similar political climate, with government targeting public sector salaries and wages as the primary source of deficit reduction. Bell’s presentation to ETFO reinforced the importance of doing what we can as a union to avoid the politics of division south of the border.

Wisconsin government guts union contracts
Wisconsin has joined a number of Republican- led state governments to cut expenditures and  gut public sector contracts. In March 2011, the state passed legislation that restricts public sector unions from bargaining anything beyond salary, and mandates that salary increases cannot exceed inflation. Wisconsin teachers now also pay a greater cost of their benefits and have lost their 180 minutes of preparation time.

In addition, the legislation requires the union’s 425 districts to hold recertification votes every year to maintain bargaining rights and to collect member dues directly rather than receiving them through the time-honoured dues check-off process administered by the employer. “I can now, as an employee of the public schools in my district, have my health club fees deducted from my salary, but I can’t have my union dues deducted,” Bell commented. These government initiatives “had nothing to do with balancing the budget; they were a direct attack on unions. And you need to be watching,” she cautioned.

Wisconsin did not stop at attacking union contracts. “The elected officials in my state just got $1.6 billion out of public schools. At the same time, they gave just about as much in corporate tax breaks.” The state has also expanded the support for voucher education and funding for private schools in spite of the evidence that it is poor public policy. “We in Wisconsin have the longest-standing voucher program in the U.S. and for 20 years it has failed miserably because, guess what, educating poor kids is not easy,” said Bell. In December, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a bill that allows standardized test scores to be used to evaluate teachers and as a


ETFO President Sam Hammond speaking with media

In September 2014, ETFO began central table discussions with the government and the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association (OPSBA) to negotiate renewed collective agreements for our teacher and occasional teacher members.

press standing around podium

For a dramatic several days in early February, the activities of ETFO, the Ontario  Public   School  Boards’  Association (OPSBA),  and  th