Emily Koczela had been anxiously waiting for months for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s controversial budget repair bill to take effect. Koczela, the finance director for the Brown Deer school district, had been negotiating with the local union, trying to get it to accept concessions in order to make up for a $1 million budget shortfall. But the union wouldn’t budge.
“We laid off 27 [teachers] as a precautionary measure,” Koczela told me. “They were crying. Some of these people are my friends.”
On June 29 at 12:01 a.m., Koczela could finally breathe a sigh of relief. The budget repair bill—delayed for months by protests, runaway state senators, and a legal challenge that made its way to the state’s supreme court—was law. The 27 teachers on the chopping block were spared.
With “collective bargaining rights” limited to wages, Koczela was able to change the teachers’ benefits package to fill the budget gap. Requiring teachers to contribute 5.8 percent of their salary toward pensions saved $600,000. Changes to their health care plan—such as a $10 office visit co-pay (up from nothing)—saved $200,000. Upping the workload from five classes, a study hall, and two prep periods to six classes and two prep periods saved another $200,000. The budget was balanced.
“Everything we changed didn’t touch the children,” Koczela said. Under a collective bargaining agreement, she continued, “We could never have negotiated that—never ever.” Koczela, a graduate of Smith College and Duke University Law School, is no Republican flack. She says she’s a “classic Wisconsin independent. I vote both parties. I voted for Senator [Russ] Feingold but I voted for [Republican state] Senator Alberta Darling too.”
In Brown Deer and school districts across the state, Walker’s budget repair bill, known as Act 10, is working just as he promised. To make up for a $2.8 billion deficit without raising taxes, state aid to school districts (the largest budget line) was reduced by $830 million. Act 10, Walker said, would give districts “the tools” needed to make up for the lost money as fairly as possible.
But union leaders argued that the fight over the budget repair bill had nothing to do with balancing budgets. It was all about stripping public employees of their “collective bargaining rights.”
“We have said all along that this isn’t about pay and benefits,” Mary Bell, president of the state’s teachers’ union, said in February. “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help our state in these tough times. But . . . we will not be denied our right to collectively bargain.”
Acceding, at least rhetorically, to higher benefit contributions—5.8 percent of salary for pension (up from nothing) and 12.6 percent of health care premiums—looked like a smart tactic. It made teachers seem reasonable and focused the fight on collective bargaining “rights.”
What few people may have understood, though, is that these are “rights” that most people, including federal employees, don’t have. But Americans don’t like taking away anybody’s rights. The polls in Wisconsin showed voters overwhelmingly opposed to “weakening” or “stripping” or “eliminating” collective bargaining rights. President Obama called the bill an “assault on unions.” Democratic state senator Lena Taylor compared Scott Walker to Hitler.
But as the abstract debate over collective bargaining collides with reality, it is becoming clear just how big a lie the Big Labor line was. Now that the law is in effect, where are the horror stories of massive layoffs and schools shutting down? They don’t exist—except in a couple of districts where collective bargaining agreements, inked before the budget repair bill was introduced, remain in effect.
In Milwaukee, nine schools are shutting and 354 teachers have been fired due to a drop in state funding and the end of federal stimulus funding. But if teachers there agreed to the 5.8 percent pension contribution, the school district says it would rehire 200 of those teachers. (Other changes could offset the rest of the layoffs.)
Despite the promise from Mary Bell that all teachers would contribute something toward their pensions, Milwaukee teachers’ union president Bob Peterson won’t agree to the change. In doing so he’s made it clear that “collective bargaining rights” is code for “union veto power.”
“You have a choice: layoffs or pension contributions. Do you see that choice?” a local Fox News reporter asked Peterson. “Why did you make a choice of layoffs?”
“I didn’t lay off anybody,” Peterson replied. He thinks Milwaukee teachers have conceded enough and blames Walker’s budget cuts for the layoffs. But a year ago—before Walker was elected and when Democrats controlled all branches of government—there were also layoffs.
Given the choice between fewer benefits and layoffs, the Milwaukee teachers’ union chose the latter. In 2010, 482 teachers, including Megan Sampson, a young educator named an “outstanding first year teacher” by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English, got the axe. CNN reports that this year “Milwaukee teachers are offering meals and moral support to 354 fellow educators who will be laid off.” Meals and moral support? The union’s got your back. A job? Not so much.
The only other district seeing such massive layoffs is Kenosha, where 212 teachers will be fired this year. “Kenosha is in the same boat as [Milwaukee], with a collective bargaining agreement signed before Walker took office that lasts until June 30, 2013,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on July 16. “But most other Wisconsin districts have avoided layoffs and massive cuts to programs.”
One striking feature of Walker’s budget repair bill is the flexibility it has given school districts to balance their budgets. For example, things are looking up in the tiny town of Pittsville in the heart of the state, where the district balanced its budget mostly through increased pension contributions and not replacing four retiring teachers.
“We didn’t change anything in our health care at all,” Superintendent Terry Reynolds told me. “If Act 10 hadn’t passed,” he said, “I don’t think the teachers’ union would have wanted to approve the 5.8 percent contribution” to pensions. “That would have been a hard battle to fight. I’m not sure we would have saved dollars there.” Enough money was freed up that Pittsville property taxes will decrease by 9 percent next year.
While class sizes increased slightly in Pittsville, they’re going down in the Kaukauna school district, where the school board used the budget repair bill to turn a $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. In addition to the 5.8 percent pension contribution, the board pared back personal days from ten to five, increased the deductible for a family health insurance plan from $250 to $500, and required middle school and high school teachers to teach six classes instead of five. Any or all of these changes could have been vetoed by the union under a collective bargaining agreement.
The reforms will allow Kaukauna to spend $300,000 in merit pay for teachers next year and offer more Advanced Placement classes and languages like Chinese or Arabic in the future, according to board president Todd Arnoldussen. Bringing down class sizes “was a win for the kids and a win for everybody,” he told me.
But as Patrick Meyer, the head union negotiator in Kaukauna, says in a video, “morale has been terrible” in the district. Might teachers be spread too thin now? “Elementary teachers already teach seven hours a day,” says Arnoldussen. “That’s a horrible argument. I mean, come on. Six classes at 50 minutes.”
If morale is down, interest in teaching at Kaukauna isn’t. An opening for an elementary teacher attracted “over 500 applicants,” says Arnoldussen. “So you obviously have a huge amount of people that really want to work for Kaukauna . . . under our noncollective bargaining agreement.”
Just three weeks after Walker’s budget went into effect, its sweeping success is already apparent. But will it be enough to spare the six Republican state senators who face recall elections on August 9? Whether or not the Democrats gain the three seats they need to take over the senate, Walker’s collective bargaining success won’t be undone anytime soon. But a victory could embolden Democrats, who are gearing up for a recall election against Walker as early as the spring of 2012.
“I don’t think they think the sky’s going to fall,” says Emily Koczela of Brown Deer residents, who will vote in the recall election of Republican state senator Alberta Darling.
As for the teachers, “some of them will feel better in a year or two.” Koczela says the union told them that “this is all a sham. There isn’t really a budget shortfall. If we just all stop giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations you’ll all be fine.”
“They didn’t know who was lying to them.” But soon enough they will.
John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.