Teachers Distressed Over Wis. Collective Bargaining
JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away.
Everyone's refreshed and ready for school. New school supplies in hand, but some Wisconsin teachers feel like they've lost their most powerful tool, bargaining rights. The Wisconsin legislature voted for extensive budget cuts last winter. One part of the infamous bill stripped public employees of their right to collectively bargain. We'll speak with a Republican state senator who voted for it in a few moments.
But first, we turn to a teacher affected by that law. And while teachers unions still have a say in their salaries, many of them believe that that's not enough. With us now is Wisconsin teacher Hedy Eischeid. She's taught for 20 years and has also served as union president in her school district in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Welcome to the program.
HEDY EISCHEID: Thank you for having me.
LYDEN: So, Hedy, you're going to be teaching fifth grade again this year. But when this law was proposed in February you were working part time as union president and part time as curriculum support teacher. What was it like for you and your colleagues to go to work while that fight was going on, that very public, very televised fight?
EISCHEID: Well, Jacki, it was an extremely, emotional time for all of us. We were under attack like we have never felt in this profession before. The degree to which the public venom came out against us was pretty astonishing to many, and it was a very emotional time to feel so attacked and it was just difficult.
LYDEN: Hedy, the bill ended up going into law at the end of June right after you began summer vacation and teachers who are in the union which is the Wisconsin Teachers Education Association, WEAC. How quickly did your school district feel the consequences?
EISCHEID: Well, we're in a very unique situation from my perspective here in this district for quite some time. We had bargained collaboratively and worked collaboratively with the district for more than a decade. We had had a phenomenal relationship in where, you know, the association and the district worked extremely well together and we made decisions collectively that was in the best interests of the district, the employees, the kids, teaching and learning. It was really a pretty great place to be.
We worked real hard to try to get our school board to go back to the bargaining table because we, as an association, were interested in having a contract extension so we could maintain our right to collectively bargain. That was to no avail. And within almost 24 hours after the contract expired, we received a letter from our superintendent making some pretty dramatic changes to what it is we had known, particularly with our work day.
LYDEN: And can you give us a brief summary of what those are?
EISCHEID: Certainly. We expected to have the monetary concessions. Our state leaders said that we would be willing to give those long ago and we, as an association, when we were urging the district to go back to the table said we were absolutely going to talk about the monetary concessions, which were the insurance piece and the WRS piece.
The piece that really surprised all of us was an additional hour that was added to our day. And it concerned us for a couple reasons. One, the way in which it was done. We received it in a letter. It was a letter that everybody got right around the 4th of July. And it was just, you know, the way the message was delivered was just people felt very disrespected. And there was no involvement on the part of the association, none whatsoever. So, this really set us back on our heels.
LYDEN: Hedy, will losing collective bargaining rights really affect the quality of teaching for those teachers that are good at what they do?
EISCHEID: I believe that when an employee, any employee, doesn't have meaningful say in their work environment, the quality of their work suffers. And there's been a lot of research done in organizational development and in systems and it's pretty clear that when employees are involved in the decision-making process and they feel like their opinion matters, you do get a better product.
And now, our product is students. And when teachers in the classroom feel as though they are on a daily basis consistently and regularly told what to do without asking their opinion, the people who are in those classrooms on a daily basis working with those kids, they do feel demoralized. They don't feel respected. That, I believe, is going to have a negative consequence.
LYDEN: Wisconsin isn't doing too badly, Hedy. Right now, the state ranking is 18, nationwide 18 out of 50 states. But last week, nearly 5,000 Wisconsin teachers took early retirement between January of 2011 and July, which is double the rate of the previous year. So, you talked about morale. Do you think that the new law is part of the reason that retirement has risen?
EISCHEID: Absolutely, I absolutely do. And it was a very, very painful decision, an emotional decision for many of the people. We had 43 retirements in our district here in Fond du Lac of 535 teachers. I do believe that morale was an issue. People felt throughout this process that they just weren't respected as professionals. And given the chance and given the fact that many of them could leave, unfortunately, many decided to go.
LYDEN: What's your response to the argument that unions protect bad teachers?
EISCHEID: Unions protect and ensure due process. And if process is followed, there are teachers that have been removed that have been placed in different assignments, that have been asked to resign, that we protect due process that every employee should have.
LYDEN: What do you think the coming year is going to be like? Do you think unions are becoming obsolete? Or is there another way that teachers' rights might be protected?
EISCHEID: I don't believe unions are becoming obsolete. I think that we are going to begin to see, as the year goes on, the reason why we had protections in place for people. When you have people making decisions who don't spend their daily lives in a classroom and they don't then include the people who spend their daily lives in those classrooms, you're going to have a lot of unintended consequences take place.
You know, I think it's going to be a year of constant change. A year of a lot of firsts. I'm hopeful that in the end, here in Fond du Lac, the district and the association can try to find their way back together to where we were. I'm not certain how interested the district is in continuing that kind of relationship with us, but I know we're very interested because we don't like the way it is now and we'd like to see it back to the way it was.
LYDEN: Hedy Eischeid is a fifth grade teacher in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. She was kind enough to join us for an update on the teachers unions there. Well, have a good school year, Hedy. Thank you.
EISCHEID: Thank you. I appreciate that, Jacki.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.