Strangling public-sector unions in Wisconsin has shrunk teachers’ pay and benefits. Who’s next?
By ALANA SEMUELS
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Supporters of the so-called “right-to-work” say it’s not about killing unions, but bringing more industry, thus jobs, to Missouri. We know the latter is not true because site selection experts don’t consider RTW in the top 10 reasons companies select new plant sites. This excerpted article shows the real impact on ALL Wisconsin workers. Missouri workers be warned, it’s just around the corner here.)
Back in 2009, Rick Erickson was happy with his job as a teacher in one of the state’s northernmost school districts on the shores of Lake Superior. He made $35,770 a year teaching chemistry and physics, which wasn’t a lot of money, but then again, he received stellar healthcare and pension benefits, and could talk honestly with administrators about what he needed as a teacher every two years when his union sat down with the school district in collective bargaining sessions.
Then, five years ago, Wisconsin passed Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill,(in Missouri, we call it the “paycheck deception” bill) which dramatically limited the ability of teachers and other public employees to bargain with employers on wages, benefits, and working conditions.
After Act 10:
- Erickson saw his take-home pay drop dramatically: He now makes $30,650.
- His wife is a teacher, too, and together they make 11 percent less than they did before Act 10.
- The local union he once led — the Bayfield Education Association — is no longer certified to collectively bargain, so he can’t formally negotiate with the school district for things like prep time and sick days.
- He pays more for health care and his pension, and he says both he and his wife may now not be able to retire until they are much older than they had planned.
“We still haven’t recovered from Act 10,” Erickson, who was Wisconsin’s 2014 High School Teacher of the Year, told me. “It’s definitely changed things.”
Beginning with the elections of 2010, when a wave of Tea Party, anti-government candidates won statewide offices across the country, states have passed legislation to diminish the power of unions, and that’s had a very real effect on middle-class Americans like the Ericksons.
Wisconsin passed Act 10 in 2010, and Indiana and Michigan both became “right-to-work” states in 2012. Wisconsin became a right-to-work state in 2015.
OTHER IMPACTS TO COME?
Says Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University:
- Congress may consider a national “right-to-work” law.
- Republicans will also control the National Labor Relations Board, which oversees worker-employer disputes.
- And (president-elect) Trump could reverse Obama’s executive orders, including those which required federal contractors to provide workers with paid sick leave.
YOU’LL HAVE NO VOICE
Chaison says he expects these developments to further erode the economic security of many middle-class workers. “The middle class is going to find it has no voice in determining their wages and working conditions,” he said.
That’s already the case for many public employees in Wisconsin. In fact, in many ways, Wisconsin is a sobering preview for what may happen in the rest of the country.
- Total teacher compensation in Wisconsin has dropped eight percent, or $6,500 since Act 10, according to an extensive study by Andrew Litten, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan who used state data showing compensation of all teachers in the state of Wisconsin.
- What’s more, he found that the most experienced and highest-paid teachers experienced the biggest reduction in benefits.
- Litten’s research confirms what Labor advocates have said for decades: A lack of bargaining power can have a profound effect on what workers receive from their employers.
This, of course, is not something special about Wisconsin. “While Wisconsin is one of the most dramatic examples of a renewed regulatory focus on public sector unions, it should be considered an important part of an ongoing trend, rather than a one-off event,” Litten wrote, in the paper.
TEACHERS NOW FORCED TO WORK MULTIPLE JOBS
Because of the changes, especially the lower compensation, some teachers are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet, according to Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
Rick Erickson knows people who have left the state for Minnesota or other nearby places where teachers are treated better. Others have gone overseas.
That’s led to a shortage of qualified educators in Wisconsin — this year, Erickson’s district couldn’t find a certified applicant for a position as a biology teacher in the middle school, so they had to hire someone who was not certified as a teacher. Another district, North Fond du Lac, has had trouble recruiting qualified teachers in subjects such as math, Aaron Sadoff, the superintendent there, told me.
The only way teachers can get raises now is to switch districts, because they can’t negotiate salary increases except for cost-of-living in their own districts. Districts now compete against each other, trying to poach the qualified teachers that remain.
“It’s like the wild west,” Sadoff said.
Wisconsin isn’t the only state where anti-union rules have changed how workers interact with unions.
In Indiana, which passed a “right-to-work” law in 2012, fewer private-sector employees are choosing to pay union dues, according to David Dilts, a professor emeritus of economics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
This means that although unions must represent all employees in bargaining, they have less money with which to conduct business. As unions raise less money from the people they represent, they are less likely to conduct training and advocate for apprenticeships, Dilts said.
LEVERAGE DISAPPEARS; BOTH UNION, NON-UNION WORKERS IMPACTED
With less support from workers, unions also have less leverage.
A 2015 study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that wages in “right-to-work states” are 3.1 percent, or $1,558 lower, than they are in non-right-to-work states. (EDITOR’S NOTE: More current data shows that number is actually $6,109 (12.1 percent] less.)
Non-unionized workers are often affected by union pay because non-unionized companies are pressured to raise wages or lose workers to union shops, studies show. “People are concerned about incomes not going up,” Dilts said. “One of the reasons they’re not going up is the ’right-to-work’ law.”
Many Americans have mixed views about unions, but the example of Wisconsin at least makes one thing clear: Unions do have real positive consequences for their members. It’s possible to argue, of course, that employers will be motivated to treat their employees well because they want happy employees. But the situation in Wisconsin does not bear that out.
(Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Excerpts of her article are reprinted from The Atlantic.)