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Protecting our rights after Janus

New York Teacher

Michael Mulgrew Headshot
Michael Mulgrew
The Janus v. AFSCME case before the U.S. Supreme Court can sometimes feel like an abstract threat. So what if the U.S. Supreme Court rules that public employee unions cannot charge a fee to nonmembers to cover their fair share of collective bargaining costs? What difference could that make?

That’s just how public school educators in Wisconsin felt seven years ago. They, too, lived in a state with a strong union movement and a strong public education system. When Scott Walker, their newly elected Republican governor, decided to go after public employee unions in 2011, they had no idea how quickly everything they took for granted would be taken away from them.

Kim Kohlhaas, the president of the American Federation of Teachers–Wisconsin, told her story during a visit to New York City in early February. Kim was a 3rd-grade teacher in 2011 with a class of 15 students, prep periods, premium-free health insurance, a secure pension and a workday that ended at a reasonable hour so she could spend time with her family. She shrugged off Gov. Walker’s threats because, by her own admission, she didn’t understand what it meant to lose collective bargaining rights.

By the time Kohlhaas was elected president of the federation in 2013, she got it. After you hear her story, so will you.

This is what life is like now for teachers in Wisconsin: They have less prep time during the school day. They no longer have an impartial grievance procedure. They are all at-will employees who can be terminated at any time with no rationale. They work 45 minutes longer each day and three more PD days each school year with no additional compensation. There is no seniority. What used to be a 52-page contract now, Kim says, “fits on a Post-it note.” Teachers must now pay an additional $5,000 deductible in their health care plan and contribute $5,000 annually toward their pensions.

Wisconsin teachers are retiring in large numbers, taking teaching jobs elsewhere or leaving the profession altogether. Students can no longer count on seeing the same teachers from one year to the next. The teacher shortage is so severe that Wisconsin introduced a 15-month online licensing program to fill positions.

For the teachers who stuck around, it’s a shock when they discover they no longer have a voice. Kim told the story of a teacher who disagreed with her principal’s plan of action for a student with disabilities at a meeting with the child’s parent. That teacher, advocating for what she believed was in the best interest of her student, was terminated not long after.

Walker’s assault on labor unions was the beginning of an attack on all working people. Unionized workers took the brunt of his attacks initially, but Walker has followed up by slashing unemployment insurance, making it more difficult for injured workers to collect Workers’ Compensation benefits and eliminating his state’s living-wage statute.

That is something to keep in mind as the Janus decision looms before us. We as unionized workers are on the front lines. But behind Janus is a coming assault on every working person in this country.

What happened in Wisconsin is part of a multiyear, coordinated plan by right-wing organizations to disenfranchise workers and crush the labor movement, one of the few strong advocates for working people.

These same deep-pocketed, well-organized forces are bankrolling the Janus case. Their end game is plain to see in Wisconsin: Workers stripped of their voice on the job and their benefits.

So what can we do in the face of such an assault? Kohlhaas’ union went back to the basics of organizing. She and other union reps had one-on-one conversations with members and potential members and listened to their concerns. Emails, posters and fliers don’t cut it when your profession and your family’s livelihood are on the line.

That’s why the UFT has established membership teams in every school. We cannot afford complacency. If we don’t value what we have and protect it by paying our dues, we will lose so much more than we will save.

Kim’s story is a wake-up call to anyone thinking “it can’t happen here.” One of the delegates at the Delegate Assembly was so moved by her story that he offered to phone bank on behalf of Wisconsin’s teachers. Kim’s response: Phone bank UFT members.

“I mean this from the bottom of my heart,” she told the delegate. “You talk to your members and you keep your local strong. They’re trying to pick us off one by one. You keep your relationships. You keep the trust of your membership. That is how we stay strong.”