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State's two main teachers unions exploring merger

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By Erin Richards/ Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 8, 2014

Facing reduced membership, revenue and political power in the wake of 2011 legislation, Wisconsin's two major state teachers unions appear poised to merge into a new organization called Wisconsin Together.

The merger would combine the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union, and AFT-Wisconsin, a smaller union that includes technical college, higher education and state employees, according to new draft documents.

At the same time, a national educators group that promotes itself as an alternative to unions—and has the backing of some conservative-leaning organizations—is picking up new members in Wisconsin.

Dave Parr, president of the Janesville Education Association, said it does not appear a merger would mean significant changes for members of his union.

Parr was told by state union officials that they did not know what dues would be.

About 80 percent of Janesville teachers paid dues last year, Parr said. He did not immediately have the figure for this year, which could be different after an influx of new teachers.

Act 10 forbids school districts from deducting union dues from paychecks, as they used to do, so dues-paying now is voluntary.

Parr said that whether a teacher pays dues or not, the local union still represents them and provides the same benefits—coming to their assistance if they have a problem at work, for example. All the local presidents he has talked to operate the same way, Parr said.

The developments underscore the changing landscape for Wisconsin teachers unions since the passage of Act 10, which limits collective bargaining and makes it more difficult for unions to collect dues.

After Act 10, WEAC has lost about a third of its approximately 98,000 members and AFT-Wisconsin is down to about 6,500 members from its peak of approximately 16,000, leaders of both organizations have reported.

According to their most recent federal tax filings, WEAC collected about $19.5 million in dues in 2011, and AFT-Wisconsin collected about $2 million. Both have downsized staff and expenses.

The initial governance documents of Wisconsin Together, which include a transition document, constitution and bylaws, have been posted on AFT-Wisconsin's website for members of both organizations to peruse. A final vote on whether to merge will be taken at a special joint assembly in Green Bay on April 26.

“It would be a big step for both organizations,” said Christina Brey, spokeswoman for WEAC.

Both unions have requested permission to merge from their national affiliates: the National Education Association for WEAC, and the American Federation of Teachers for AFT-Wisconsin.

If the groups join forces, Wisconsin would become the sixth state to host a merged teachers union affiliate of the two powerful national unions, joining Minnesota, Florida, North Dakota, Montana and New York.

A small group of members from both Wisconsin unions began discussions last year about a possible merger.

REFOCUSED UNION

The idea has been raised before, but talks never gained the kind of traction they did after Act 10.

“I think Act 10 was a huge eye opener,” said Kim Kohlhaas, AFT-Wisconsin's new president. “I think historically even the union got caught up in (collective bargaining), and it used to be lot of contract organization. This allows us an opportunity to focus on that completely differently.”

Kohlhaas said the new organization would provide resources to members such as professional development and advocate for public education by communicating with the Department of Public Instruction or lawmakers.

“This is an organization that would allow us to provide professional resources in addition to being a voice for good working conditions,” she said.

According to the draft governance documents, Wisconsin Together would officially start in September and have a two-year transition period during which the leaders of both unions would act as co-presidents.

Dues have been a sticking point.

Currently, state dues for AFT-Wisconsin members are $285 annually compared with state dues of $308 for a WEAC member who's a full-time teacher.

That does not include additional dues members have to pay to the national and local unions. WEAC members also pay regional dues; AFT-Wisconsin does not have regional dues.

The governance documents for Wisconsin Together calls for all full-time teachers from former WEAC locals to pay $385 per year in dues, and full-time equivalent workers from AFT-Wisconsin to initially pay $290 annually, which would increase to $310 in the second year.

A joint committee would be established to figure out a new dues structure for the organization after its first two years, Kohlhaas said.

Wisconsin Together would send a percentage of members' dues to both the NEA and AFT. The new merged union and all of its locals also would belong to the AFL-CIO, according to the draft documents.

WEAC President Betsy Kippers said Tuesday that the total amount of dues paid by AFT-Wisconsin and WEAC members won't change dramatically under the proposal. The structure of how those dues are distributed will change for some members, she said.

NONUNION GROUP GROWS

Meanwhile, a nonunion group called the Association of American Educators is making inroads in the state.

The organization, based in Mission Viejo, Calif., rejects what it calls “forced unionism,” or the practice of forcing dues from teachers' paychecks, which was commonplace in Wisconsin before the passage of Act 10.

Instead it focuses on professional development and offers teachers benefits such as liability insurance and access to legal counsel.

With a fledgling 150 members before the legislation passed, the Wisconsin branch of the organization is on pace to reach 1,000 members by the end of 2013-'14, spokeswoman Alexandra Freeze said.

“We see that teachers are definitely looking for a less politically charged option,” she said.

Freeze said dues are cheaper than union dues—$180 annually for teachers—because the group doesn't focus on collective bargaining or political activity.

The association, which has about 20,000 members nationally, has a much warmer attitude toward charter schools than most teachers unions, but members are split on their feelings toward private-school vouchers, Freeze said.

Freeze said the association is nonpartisan, but the group or its foundation has received funding from conservative-leaning organizations such as the Bradley Foundation and the Walton Foundation in recent years.

Gazette reporter Frank Schultz and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Monique Collins contributed to this story.



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