A new chapter for the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association
“Things will never be the same,” said Bob Peterson, elected president of the union in June.
Keith Bender, a labor economist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, agreed: “If Gov. Walker were recalled … it would change the dynamics quite a bit. But I don’t see any major changes in the short term.”
Bender said that if there were a “clean sweep,” with a Democratic governor and Legislature installed, “I think even then there will be some debate.”
The Democratic Party of Wisconsin announced it collected 507,000 signatures in just 30 days and is confident it will secure the 540,208 valid signatures it needs to submit to the Government Accountability Office by Jan. 17.
Peterson was pleased with the results, as a recall is “a first step and a goal of ours.”
A second goal is to restore collective bargaining, but Peterson, who was a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher since 1980, recognized the difficulty of that.
“Even if Walker is recalled, it’s going to take time to reinstate collective bargaining in the state,” Peterson said.
Bender said that, without collective bargaining, the MTEA is powerless. Walker signed Act 10, which stripped public unions’ ability to bargain collectively on anything other than wages, on March 11; it went into effect June 29. Meanwhile, Act 32, the state’s biennial budget bill, went into effect July 1.
“From an economic point of view, it’s not very viable,” Bender said of the MTEA. “The longer Acts 10 and 32 are in place, it becomes increasingly more difficult for unions to make the case to their constituents that they are their voice. It makes it more difficult for them to rebound.”
Peterson disagreed: “I think that what Act 10 means for working people is that unions are even more important.”
But, he said, the union must change its tactics.
“We can’t rely on collective bargaining,” he acknowledged. “We have to move to collective action.”
That’s a radical departure from how the MTEA has operated, he said.
“This really changes the game,” Peterson said. “Historically, unions have focused on bread and butter issues. But we’re members of the community. We have a real vested interest in seeing this community improve.
If it sounds like Peterson is reform-minded, it’s because he is. He’s been a proponent of educational change from the get-go. He’s a founder of Fratney Street School, a two-way bilingual school in the Riverwest neighborhood. He’s also the founder of Rethinking Schools, a national magazine published in Milwaukee.
“I’ve been active in school reform issues,” he said. “My background is broad. It isn’t just union politics.”
It may come as a surprise that Peterson is not among those who oppose the notion that his membership – about 8,000 strong – contribute to their health care benefits.
“You didn’t hear me say I’m critical of paying premiums,” he said.
At the same time, he does not favor a recent Milwaukee Public School Board vote that approved a health care plan for MPS employees because union leadership was not part of the negotiating team.
In November, the board OK’d a tiered plan whereby employees would pay a certain percentage of their premiums based on their pay. Employees, at the end of their contract, would be required to pay between 5 and 14 percent, depending on which plan they choose. Currently, they pay between 1 and 2 percent.
Peterson said he liked the tiered approach to contributions. “People who earn less should pay less,” he said.
But he said the plan as approved is “catastrophic” and was rushed into without input from union leadership.
“We’re still going to come up with a proposal,” he said. “My thought is, as a community, what we need is not a race to the bottom.”
And Peterson is among those who believe teachers should be held accountable for students’ education — but not necessarily test scores.
Peterson said that in 1997, he helped start a peer review program, called Teacher Evaluation and Mentoring, or TEAM. Teachers would refer a struggling teacher to the program, and that teacher would receive support and instruction. But if the teacher failed to improve, the only option was to leave the profession.
“That’s the type of program the union has supported,” he said. “We have exited dozens of teachers.
“Nobody is satisfied with low achievement scores or the gap in achievement. There are problems, but they’re not all caused by teachers. The biggest variable … is the socio-economic status of students.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly one-third of Milwaukeeans lived in poverty in 2010; half of all children did.
“MPS is the largest social service agency in this city,” Peterson said. “It is the only institution capable of and committed to serving all children. We don’t do it well enough. But it’s this institution that’s the future of our children.
“People go into teaching to teach kids,” he said. “If we make that almost impossible, we’re not going to attract and retain the quality of teachers our children deserve in the community. The data shows it’s a revolving door already.”