Merger between state’s largest teachers’ unions possible
WEAC President Mary Bell discusses the potential for a merger with the state’s other major teachers’ union, AFT-Wisconsin.
Frederica Freyberg: But first, United We Stand. That may be part of the motivation for the two Wisconsin state teacher unions to merge. Membership is down by a third at the Wisconsin Education Association Council. That helped lead the way to talks of a merger with the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin. Mary Bell is the president of WEAC. Mary, thanks very much for being here. Mary Bell: Always a pleasure. Frederica Freyberg: So what is the status at this moment of those merger talks? Mary Bell: Well, we're just beginning to form formal merger proposals, because what we needed from both our organizations, on the AFTC side as well as the WEAC, was a firm resolution by our members. Last Saturday we had almost 1,000 of our members together and they said, overwhelmingly, they wanted to see if we could find a way to do the things we care about, to really promote and advocate for public education as one organization rather than two. Frederica Freyberg: Why is that important to merge and be one? Mary Bell: Because singular voices are really important. The challenges to public education are very clear, and education employees are an important part of the policy discussion that's going forward. We want to see if we can unify that voice and make it one. Frederica Freyberg: If you made it one, given the drop-off in membership after Act 10, how big would that one union be? How many members? Mary Bell: Well, WEAC on its own-- I want to be really clear that the merger is not about drops in membership. We're 70,000 members strong and we're committed to quality public education. The highest vote that we got at last week's Saturday representative assembly was on clarifying and being very, very clear about what our mission was, in terms of promoting quality public education. Merger or no merger, that's who we are and that's what we're going to do. Frederica Freyberg: And yet there are some very large districts, the largest school districts in the state, that are still covered by contracts, and when those expire, might you expect some of those people who are currently in some so-called closed shop, to drop off? Mary Bell: Oh, I think that's exactly what Act 10 was designed to do. But I think that those locals are very strong, and they have a close connection with their members, and we'll see what that brings. But whoever we are, the membership of WEAC is committed to quality public education, and we're going to advocate strongly for that. Frederica Freyberg: Now, you can't bargain around collective bargaining anymore, and also what you're left to bargain is kind of small salary increases. So what is your role? Mary Bell: Bargaining is a tactic. Bargaining is a strategy. But it is not the mission. If in fact collective advocacy is what the union is, you advocate around the things that make for quality public education. Salary and benefits are only one of the ways that you build a quality workforce. We want to make sure that every classroom, every school district has the highest quality professionals focused on delivering the best product for our students. That's how you build the profession. That's how you build quality education. Frederica Freyberg: And yet this advocacy role takes on a new form, because you're no longer at that bargaining table necessarily in all those kinds of ways. So what is that new form? How do you advocate? Mary Bell: Well, it's not really new, but it is a part that has not gotten a lot of focus when collective bargaining was the avenue for most of that work. But we simply do it through connections with our community. The delegates on Saturday were very clear that they want to focus on local districts, local communities, and the issues that are important, local by local, so that those messages can come forward very strongly at the state level for quality policy. Frederica Freyberg: What have you found since Act 10 going forward? Has it been as dire as everyone thought it might be for teachers in the classroom? Or have the locals, kind of, stepped up and taken care of their teachers? Mary Bell: Well, locals step up and do what they can, but the environment has been one where their connections to the community really need to be built in different ways than they were before. In some districts it's working pretty well, because the school board and the administration have decided to really use the educators as full partners, with or without a bargaining law, and in some places we found the abuse has been pretty devastating to the quality of education. Now, that won't show up in a year. It won't even show up maybe in two. But over the long haul you will find there are districts that will lose quality educators. The kind of cuts that are coming to public schools in terms of funding will not be solved by making educators pay more and in the end it's going to be the children that pay the price. Frederica Freyberg: What about your former formidable political clout and political fund-raising or contribution ability? How has that changed? Mary Bell: Well, clearly when you have fewer members, you have less, but it is a question of how you use your influence and how you use your power. Our greatest power has always been that we have members in every legislative district of this state, and that those members connect to their communities and they'll be more and more active from the local level on up, making sure that the voice of educators is heard. Frederica Freyberg: Very, very briefly, we only have about 15 seconds left, and I'm sorry about that, but why do teacher unions matter to anybody but teachers? Mary Bell: Teachers unions matter to quality public education. It is the way that the collective voice of educators can be heard. I don't think you get to the education that Wisconsin has counted on, that they’ve relied on for economic development, without that voice at the table. Frederica Freyberg: Mary Bell, thanks very much. Mary Bell: Thank you.