Draft bill proposes collective bargaining to address state’s teacher shortage

Lawmakers unveiled legislation Wednesday to restore collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin public school teachers, rolling back provisions in the 2011 law that stripped virtually all of those rights.

In addition to “persistent worker shortages” that have strained schools seeking to fill jobs for teachers, backers of the proposal — all Democrats — cite the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a recent poll in which three out of four people surveyed reported that they favored the right of public school teachers to bargain collectively.

“Our public education workers have pivoted on a dime and put themselves on the front line during the pandemic to serve the public,” said Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) at a news conference in the Capitol to unveil the draft legislation. “Public employees who have and continue to risk their own health and safety deserve the right to negotiate fair wages, working conditions, and their own safety and the safety of those around them.

Gov. Tony Evers included a provision in the draft 2021-2023 biennial budget to restore collective bargaining rights for many public employees, which were all but ended in Wisconsin by former Gov. Scott Walker in 2011 when he signed Act 10, a union-busting state law that triggered massive public protests. The Republican majority in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee removed Evers’ collective bargaining provision at the start of budget deliberations and rejected attempts to restore it.

The number of students enrolling in education training programs fell 33.5% from 2012 to 2018, Larson said, citing data from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Eighteen colleges and universities in Southeast Wisconsin issued fewer than 2,100 education degrees and certificates a year from 2011 to 2019, while the state is expecting nearly 2,600 openings for preschool and K-12 teachers a year over the next seven years, he said — setting the stage for persistent shortages for the field.

“Those who work in public education have had to contend with many challenges, including workforce shortages and funding limitations, not to mention the additional burdens and recent barriers brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rep. Katrina Shankland, (D-Stevens Point), a coauthor of the bill.

“The absence of teacher voice and low pay are key factors in Wisconsin’s mounting teacher shortage,” said Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state’s largest union for teachers.

During the pandemic, some school districts worked with teachers to devise plans for teaching that would keep staff and students safe, Wirtz-Olsen said. “But in some other districts, educators were completely shut out and left with directives that didn’t make sense for students,” she added. Collective bargaining would have made educators “part of the discussions on the front end in every school district, saving students and their families, a whole lot of confusion and keeping our students safer.”

The proposed bill includes not just K-12 public school teachers but other non-managerial staff as well. In addition, it would include employees of public technical and four-year colleges and universities as well as the Cooperative Educational Service Agencies that connect schools within regions around the state. It is being circulated to collect cosponsors.

Larson cited a poll in Wisconsin that showed 76% of those surveyed supported collective bargaining for teachers. The question was included in a survey in November 2020 commissioned by unions.