Big changes come to Wisconsin

As the new school year begins, teachers in Wisconsin are just now finding out what work life will be like without a contract.

With the start of school approaching on Sept. 1, about two-thirds of Wisconsin's school districts are rushing to finalize employee handbooks to replace now-extinct collective bargaining agreements that for decades outlined duties and salaries for workers.

The passage of the state's new "Act 10" legislation - in effect for all districts that didn't extend a contract with teachers before the passage of the law - gives administrators the ability to make sweeping changes to teachers' pay scales, hours and working conditions without having to negotiate them with unions.

Some sacred cows are disappearing, such as teacher tenure, layoffs based on seniority and the guarantee of 10 years' worth of post-retirement health insurance. Other big and complex changes on the horizon include new salary structures and pay-for-performance plans.

Many teachers, especially those still feeling bruised from divisive union fights and the requirement to pay more for their health insurance and retirement, are concerned about the changes being made unilaterally by management, said Christina Brey, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union.

Some of the major changes will include

  • Changing health insurance options and reducing post-retirement benefits
  • Ending tenure and layoff decisions based on seniority, now teachers can be on year-to-year contracts, and nonrenewal decisions can be based on performance.
  • Modifying work expectations. Teacher contracts traditionally specify a variety of work-related conditions, from the maximum number of contact hours with students, to the number of prep periods, to the length and number of work days.

The other intended consequence was to reduce the teachers association to a shell, as they announce a 40% reduction in staff

The law strips teachers and most other public employees of rights to collectively bargain over issues like work conditions or vacation time. The extent of their collective bargaining rights are now limited to wages, and workers cannot argue for a salary increase larger than the rate of inflation. It also no longer permits unions to automatically withdraw dues from paychecks.

Similar effects will be felt in Ohio if SB5 survives the November election. It's not hyperbole to suggest that the teaching profession is on the line. And without strong advocates for public education, that too will come under great and greater duress.