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How Collective Bargaining Forced Milwaukee to Fire a Teacher of the Year

New poll shows strong support for specific changes to collective bargaining.

9:48 AM, Mar 8, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Rasmussen is out with a new poll showing that likely Wisconsin voters remain opposed to "weakening collective bargaining rights" by a 57 to 39 percent margin.

How Collective Bargaining Forced Milwaukee to Fire a Teacher of the Year

It's not suprising that support for collective bargaining is that high. First, people generally don't favor "weakening" any "rights" (for that matter, Wisconsin Republicans would dispute that collective bargaining is a right, rather than a privilege). Second, most people are not members of unions, so they might not know what collective bargaining really means. To them, "weakening" collective bargaining "rights" probably sounds an awful lot like simply diminishing a group's ability to assemble and negotiate.

What collective bargaining has frequently meant in practice is that unions never have to concede any of the benefits they've won through a collective bargaining agreement unless they want to do so. In other words, when there's a budget crunch, the union--not the school district or  local government--gets to choose between massive layoffs and slight benefits reductions. For example, in June 2010, long before Scott Walker was elected, Milwaukee Public Schools fired 482 teachers--including Megan Sampson, a young educator named an "outstanding first year teacher" by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English.

Sampson and 481 other teachers were laid off for two reasons having to do with collective bargaining:

First, the collective bargaining agreement allowed the teachers' union to choose between small reductions in health care benefits and layoffs. "Given the opportunity, of course I would switch to a different [health care] plan to save my job, or the jobs of 10 other teachers," Sampson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The teachers' union felt differently. It chose layoffs.  

Second, the collective bargaining agreement guaranteed that teachers would be laid off on the basis of seniority rather than merit (or lack thereof). Therefore, Sampson, and likely a lot of other promising young educators got the axe, while the rest of the teachers, good and bad alike, were protected simply by the amount of time they'd put in.

So one really must wonder what voters would say if asked about these particular aspects of "collective bargaining rights." Should teachers' unions effectively have veto power over reductions to their $24,000-a-year health insurance plans, even if those small reductions could prevent layoffs? And should school districts be required to lay off teachers on the basis of seniority rather than merit?

As it happens, Rasmussen's new poll, while not asking these specific questions, keys in on the fact that the specifics of collective bargaining are not so popular, even though support for maintaining "collective bargaining rights" remains quite high. To wit: "just 19% believe that unions should be allowed to require a local school district to buy health insurance coverage from a union-created insurance company. Three times as many (57%) are opposed."

Walker has argued, citing a 2005 study, that school districts could save $68 million if teachers switched to the generous state employees' health plan from the WEA Trust. But so long as collective bargaining agreements remain in place, school districts can't change plans or reduce benefits without the local teachers' union signing off. And that's why Walker and Wisconsin Republicans want to limit collective bargaining to wages.

So it seems that there may be some confusion as to what "weakening collective bargaining" would really mean. Yet, as the saying goes, perception is reality in politics. And that's why Walker's approval rating has dipped into the low to mid 40s.

Then again, reality will ultimately get a chance to influence perceptions. As Spencer Abraham argued, if Walker's bill passes, and voters realize the school districts balanced their budgets without laying anyone off--that the "sky didn’t fall"-- Walker and Republicans should expect to rebound in the polls.

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