Collective Bargaining Repeal: The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Wisconsin Schools
The repeal of much of Wisconsin’s collective bargaining law with regard to many of Wisconsin’s public employees has not been adequately explained. This repeal will do more to improve the quality and lower the cost of Wisconsin government than anything else we’ve done. There are approximately 275,000 government employees in the state of Wisconsin. About 72,000 work for the state, 38,000 for cities and villages, 48,000 for counties, 10,500 (full time equivalent) for technical colleges, and 105,229 for schools. Only half of state employees are unionized, but almost all school employees are.
As you can see, the biggest impact will be on Wisconsin’s schools. Since my office has received the most complaints from school teachers, let’s look at how collective bargaining affects both the cost and quality of our schools.
Under current law, virtually all conditions of employment have to be spelled out in a collectively bargained agreement. Consequently, it is very difficult to remove underperforming school teachers. It may take years of documentation and thousands of dollars in attorney fees to fire a bad teacher. Is it right that two or three classes of second graders must endure a bad teacher while waiting for documentation to be collected? Just as damaging is the inability to motivate or change the mediocre teacher who isn’t bad enough to fire. Good superintendants are stymied when they try to improve a teacher who is doing just enough to get by.
While most teachers care about their students, some only “teach to the contract.” An elementary school teacher’s contract may require just seven hours and forty-five minutes a day in school. If the principal wants to have a meeting after school to discuss curriculum, or requests a meeting with parents of a troubled student, a teacher could say that this is not in the contract. Recall the recent flare-up when Fond du Lac teachers objected to having to work eight hour days.
Another problem affecting our schools’ quality is that payment for individual teachers is not based on merit but on a union negotiated pay schedule. A mediocre teacher with a master’s degree and additional college credits gets more money than a superior teacher who doesn’t have as many college credits. This is clearly unfair, and destroys healthy incentives that would encourage teachers to be more effective.
If enrollment drops, teachers must be let go. In practice, this means that collective bargaining causes the better teachers with less seniority to be laid off. If that’s not bad enough, a teacher who has never taught third grade may get to move ahead of a good third grade teacher because of union bumping rights. You also have to ask the union for permission to “share” a teacher with another school district if you want to give students more options. If you want to borrow another district’s teacher for a day to offer Mandarin Chinese, you must ask the union to sign off. The same could be true of offering new electives online for particularly gifted and talented students.
It has been well reported that, under collective bargaining, districts have been stuck with the teacher union insurance company which can cost $3,000 or more per teacher than a plan that is virtually identical to that which another company is willing to provide. Switching to Health Savings Accounts like the private sector is out of the question.
The teachers union must agree to changes in the schedule. If a school district wants to set their schedule so that it is the same as private schools to save money on school bussing, the union must sign off.
A teacher may be entitled to 13 paid personal days. All this for employees who may only be required to work 190 days a year in the first place. There is also the cost of time spent negotiating seventy page contracts.
Clearly, collective bargaining penalizes schools and students, costs an exorbitant amount of money, and lowers the quality of education in Wisconsin. The same story could be told for tech schools, cities, counties, and the state. Tech schools may have to pay the same amount for teachers in very different fields. If such a school needs to offer a good salary to attract talented teachers for dental hygiene or tool and die, that’s understandable. Must Milwaukee Area Technical College, however, pay well over $100,000 to teach someone how to pass their GED? The compensatory problems that are a problem in our K-12 system hurt our tech schools, in my opinion, even more.
Counties or cities may want more flexibility to transfer employees between departments. Why should a local government not be able to switch people from roads to parks? Racine County was sued by the union for using jail inmates to do landscape work on medians. Volunteers have been unable to help out because of union contracts.
The removal of collective bargaining in prisons will also save money. Under collective bargaining, guards could call in sick on first shift and work overtime on second shift. Similar to counties, you could not shuttle people back and forth between job descriptions. If a prisoner must go to the hospital, the prison may have to send a transporter who is on overtime to take the prisoner to the hospital rather than an extra prison guard who is not in the prison at that time.
Franklin Roosevelt originally said that unions and government do not mix. After reviewing some union contracts, I can see why. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat backed by a Democratic Congress, greatly reduced collective bargaining for federal employees via the Civil Service Reform Act. Even President Obama has not tried to restore these rights. Massachusetts Democrats recently passed a bill divesting government employees of the power to collectively bargain most health-care benefits.
While we did not eliminate collective bargaining, we certainly reduced its scope in Wisconsin. As a direct result, the cost savings are significant at all levels of government. (Cost savings to schools from having school employees pay a small part of their health insurance and pension costs more than offset the mild reduction in education funding.) But, the most important benefit will be an improvement in the quality of our schools as efficiency, personnel decisions, compensation decisions and methods of teaching children will not be subject to union meddling and obstruction.