Troubled Public Schools: What Wisconsin's Labor Reform Can Tell Us

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The Kenosha, Wis. School District teachers' union was decertified September 12. Depending which people you believe, it was either decertified by a vote of the teachers or it was decertified because the union did not follow procedures and request a recertification vote as required by Wisconsin's labor reform law, popularly known as Act 10.

Regardless of how - the union is out. The question now is what are the ramifications for school teachers in the rest of the state and nationwide? What could this mean for education in America?

It could be a bellwether.

According to some published reports the schoolteachers in Kenosha, Wis. voted, Sept. 12, to decertify the Kenosha Education Association (KEA). They did so by a wide margin, according to these reports. By a near two to one margin they voted against it. Just 37% of the teachers opted to retain the union. But the union is claiming that no such election took place.

But KEA executive director Joe Kiriaki issued a notice on September 12 in which he says the union has not held a certification election. He claims the district's claim of a vote is untrue.

"For the district to promote untrue information on a right-wing conservative talk show known for bashing teachers is disgraceful," Kiriaki said. " The KEA long ago opted not to jump through the hoops created by the anti-union Act 10, and part of that is not participating in an annual, cost-prohibitive election with a threshold higher than that to elect the president of the United States. The union exists with or without a certification vote. Period. Our members will focus on affecting what matters in our schools through organizing with educators, parents and the community."

Under Act 10, the union was required to file for annual recertification by Aug. 30 if it wanted to be recognized as the bargaining unit, but it did not. Christina Brey, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which is the state body for the teachers' unions, downplayed what happened in Kenosha. She said the majority of the unions will probably not seek recertification because it is too onerous a process for them.

The Kenosha School District is the third largest in the state. The concept of decertification elections was made possible by the controversial Act 10 labor reforms, enacted under Gov. Scott Walker (R). These reforms were the cause of massive, and sometimes violent, labor demonstrations in the state house in 2011 and 2012. Act 10 also led to a recall election of Walker, which was unsuccessful.

Act 10's constitutionality was also challenged in federal court. Ironically, the constitutionality was upheld September 11, the day before the KEA decertification.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin was challenged in by Laborers Local 236.

Matt Patterson, a labor policy analyst at Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank in Washington D.C., said what happened in Kenosha was significant.

"Gov. Walker's bold and effective reforms have loosened the grip of unions on Wisconsin's public purse, to the benefit of taxpayers and to the detriment of Big Labor bosses," he said in a written statement. "The news today proves what unions have long feared - that when workers are actually given a free and fair choice, they will often choose opt out of union membership altogether."

Patrick Semmens, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, in Washington D.C. that represented a Kenosha teacher in support of Act 10, is all too familiar with this issue.

He says regardless of whether the union acknowledges the decertification vote or not, the end result is the same. KEA is no longer an official union. It cannot represent the teachers in bargaining with the school district.

About the whole concept of teachers' decertifying their union Semmens thinks that other states should look to this. He says they will see the benefits of this system. Although the legal framework established by Act 10 is not in place elsewhere, other states will possibly emulate it.

"What it says is that if teachers' unions would be required to recertify we would see the number of unions drop," Semmens said."Once a union is in place they are almost impossible to get out. A lot of people were forced into unions even though they never wanted to join."

But Kenosha is not quite the canary in the coal mine.

According to Semmens, even if, say, a teachers' union could be decertified, the employees who oppose a union would have to collect signatures to hold the decertification election. If they did they still would have to oppose a union with millions of dollars - that was taken from them in the form of union dues. So it is an enormous task - albeit not an impossible one.

He cited data indicating that only 7% of current union members in a private sector unions actually voted in the original certification election. So unions are not exactly representative of the membership.

If the Kenosha district starts a trend, it could mean that other teachers' unions across Wisconsin will also be decertified. Costly labor actions might be avoided. Quite possibly more money will go to rewarding competent teachers and incompetent teachers will be dismissed.

These are all just possibilities right now. There is nothing certain.

What is certain is that decertification elections allow workers the ability to either consent to continued representation by a union or to rid themselves of the union.

--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet

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