How Milwaukee Teachers Beat Back Cuts and Busywork

Collective bargaining is all but illegal for public sector workers in Wisconsin. So how did Milwaukee teachers not only block major cuts to public schools but also make gains on workload and health care?

At the height of the red-state teacher strikes in April and May, teachers and school employees in Milwaukee passed around a petition at school committing that to win their demands, they were ready to “do whatever it takes.”

The clear subtext: illegal or not, teachers might walk out. “We were assessing our collective willingness to step out further than we have before,” said Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Amy Mizialko, “including shutting down schools.”

In May the district blinked. Management backed off its proposed 5 percent cut to schools budget and cuts to health care, and it reduced the hours of administrative busywork. It even added health care for full-time substitute teachers and accelerated a path to $15 an hour for school employees.

That peak came after months of escalating actions. This spring teachers packed school board meetings, occupied the school board’s office, and mobilized thousands of union members and allies to protest outside district headquarters.

“Take a Pause”

Since 2011’s Act 10, public sector bargaining in Wisconsin is limited to one topic—salaries, with increases capped at the rate of inflation. All other issues are off the table. And strikes are prohibited, with heavy monetary penalties or potential injunctions intended to scare unions off.

Act 10 also forced teachers and school employees to pay more into their pension and their health care plans.

Instead of a collective bargaining agreement, in 2013 the Milwaukee district shifted to a handbook. In the process it eliminated previous union salary schedules, with raises now at the discretion of the school board. It also increased the time teachers have to sit in staff meetings or professional development…

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