From her office near Capitol Square last week, Susan Bauman could hear the chants of union protesters rising and falling.
For Bauman, a former teacher in the Madison School District, the sound took her back to one of the most difficult times of her life — the city’s bitter 1976 teacher strike.
Now a mediator with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission, Bauman was one of the leaders in the two-week strike by Madison Teachers Inc.
The experience was so unnerving that Bauman found it hard to teach afterward. As she told a reporter later, “Teaching was never the same again.” She ended up going to law school to study employment law and served as Madison mayor from 1997 to 2003.
Bauman and others now fear Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate almost all collective bargaining for most public employees will lead to gut-wrenching strikes and workplaces where uncertainty over everything from sick days to the timing of breaks will fundamentally change a day on the job.
Disrupting the process
Wisconsin has had a collective bargaining law for public employees since 1959. What would it be like in a Wisconsin without collective bargaining?
Even those who represent management have trouble imagining how it might be.
“It is almost impossible for us to get our heads around the idea of no union,” said Miles Turner, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators. He said the association has called for changes to the collective bargaining law but does not favor its elimination.
Turner said a lack of collective bargaining would dramatically change what is now an established and mostly smooth working relationship between administrators and teachers.
“There is an established method for doing business,” Turner said. “There is an understanding between management and labor about how things will work.”
Most people working in schools don’t remember a time without collective bargaining, Turner said.
“The vast majority of us have never worked in a situation without collective bargaining,” Turner said. “We aren’t even sure how things would change. It would be a problematic environment. If there is no union, could a principal walk into a classroom and tell a teacher that they will be teaching 10 more classes?”
Potential for conflict
The potential disruption of a peaceful workplace may be one of the most threatening aspects of the possible loss of collective bargaining, said Dennis Dresang, emeritus professor of political science and public affairs at UW-Madison.
“Research shows that there is almost always inherent and inevitable conflict between workers and management,” Dresang said. “The major reason why collective bargaining occurs is because of this conflict. We’ve gone for so many years now with basically labor peace that I think people don’t have a good appreciation for collective bargaining.”
Bauman agreed and added that it would be difficult for any worker to return to a job where they were unsure about details such as workload or overtime. Under Walker’s proposal, public employees would only be able to bargain on salary, though the bill was amended to provide workers with a grievance process.
“I quite honestly can’t imagine what it would be like for teachers or any other public employees,” Bauman said. “It’s hard to describe what it’s like when you work in an employment situation where you don’t know the rules from one day to the next.”
But most disturbing to those who contemplated a Wisconsin without collective bargaining is a possible return to labor strife, to strikes and picket lines and angry, divided communities.
Just about everyone who talks about the possibility of strikes mentions the small Wisconsin community of Hortonville.
In March 1974, teachers in Hortonville, near Appleton, went on strike. They had not won a base salary raise in three years and the School Board refused to bargain or mediate. The strike turned ugly, with confrontations on picket lines as carloads of strikebreaking teachers tried to drive through. Helmeted sheriff’s deputies were bused to Hortonville from five neighboring counties.
On April 2, the School Board fired the 84 striking teachers. Lives were changed. Some of the teachers left their profession for good. Others switched careers when they found other school districts across the state would not hire them. As late as 2003, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest teachers’ union, refused an affiliation with the local Hortonville Association of Teachers until all of the teachers who crossed the picket line were gone.
Hostility lingers even today. “There are still people there who remember it bitterly,” Dresang said.
Such strikes, Bauman said, change everything in schools, including the relationship between teachers and students. The loss of most collective bargaining rights for teachers and other public employees would almost certainly mean more frequent walkouts and strikes, she said.
Turner, with the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said a return to those angry confrontations would benefit no one, hurt students and drive away good teachers.
“We are not going to keep our best and brightest if that happens,” Turner said.