Despite being active in her local union, Kohlhaas said she had been oblivious to the political storm brewing on the horizon and what losing collective bargaining rights would mean for Wisconsin’s top-flight public education system and for herself and her colleagues. “We were complacent,” she said. “We didn’t realize what the union had done for us over the years.”
But the reality of what it meant, she said, came hard and fast.
Kohlhaas told her story at a series of gatherings with classroom teachers, union officials and reporters at a packed Delegate Assembly during a visit on Feb. 6 and 7 to New York City at UFT President Michael Mulgrew’s invitation as the union braces for a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Janus v. AFSCME case.
Teachers at PS 196 and MS 582 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, audibly gasped as she recounted loss after loss: $5,000 in take-home pay the first year after teachers were required to pay health insurance premiums and contribute to their pensions; a new $5,000 deductible in the insurance plan in the second year; the loss of prep time, duty-free lunch periods, the salary structure, tenure and the ability to file grievances; and three additional professional development days a year and 45 minutes added to the work day for mandatory, before-school management meetings — all with no additional compensation. Her union’s 55-page contract was reduced to less than a page. Kohlhaas said her class size ballooned. When a colleague was sick and there was no substitute, those students also would land in her class for the day, she said.“I was coming in earlier to work, staying later and paying more for child care,” Kohlhaas said, “so the changes were also affecting my personal life.”
The notion of teaching as a lifelong career has been snuffed out in Wisconsin, Kohlhaas said. Teachers are now “at-will” employees — each spring, they are either issued a contract for the following year or they receive a “nonrenewal,” which does not need to have a rationale behind it, she said. Kohlhaas said Wisconsin teachers are demoralized, afraid to speak up for themselves or their students, and heading for the exits in large numbers.
State lawmakers quickly took advantage of the union’s new weakness. State funding for public schools was slashed. The Milwaukee voucher program was expanded statewide and per-student funding is now higher for voucher students than for public school students, she said. To deal with the teacher shortage created by the passage of Act 10, state lawmakers passed legislation this year that allows someone working toward a bachelor’s degree to get a teaching license with 15 months of online coursework but no classroom experience — “and on Black Friday, it was on sale,” she said. The question her union had to answer was: “How do you build back your political power and how do you win under these circumstances?”
In the beginning, Kohlhaas explained, “We were villainized by the community.” People blamed high taxes on teachers with good salaries and strong benefits. Some communities even distributed pacifiers when teachers staged protests, she said, “to stop us from whining like babies.”
But she senses change. “Communities are starting to wake up,” she said. “Parents are upset when they see all the new faces at the start of each school year and their children miss the teachers they had come to trust the most.”
Introduced at the Delegate Assembly by Mulgrew “as a leader who has no fear,” Kohlhaas explained that the Wisconsin teachers union was rebuilding, local union by local union, fielding progressive candidates at the local level and flipping school boards one by one across the state. “We are finding community members and parents to run for school board that will support public education,” she said. “We are training our members to run for City Council and county boards. That’s how we start to build back leverage.”
While her union is grooming candidates at the local level now, the long-term goal is to run candidates for state office, she said.
Kohlhaas said her members understand that they are fighting for the integrity of public education in Wisconsin. “Every single one of my members defends public education on a daily basis,” she said. “This is a coordinated attack. They intend on continuing to hit us and hit us and hit us. But we are here for a reason as professionals, and our union gives us the voice to do that job.”