Wisconsin teachers take the lead

March 22, 2011

Bob Peterson teaches fifth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee. He is a founding editor of Rethinking Schools and is running for president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. He co-edited (with Bill Bigelow) Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years and (with Michael Charney) Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice.

Peterson was part of the struggle in Wisconsin against Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting attack in February and March. He talked to Adam Sanchez, a member of the Portland Association of Teachers in Oregon, who visited Madison during the mass protests, about what happened in Wisconsin and the issues at stake for teachers.

OVER THE last few years, we've seen an increasing attack on teachers in the context of education "reform." Can you explain what the climate in Milwaukee and Wisconsin looked like before Governor Walker's "budget repair bill" that set off the struggle?

THE CLIMATE was bad. Milwaukee is home of the largest publicly funded private school voucher program in the country, with over 20,000 students participating. For two decades, voucher proponents, heavily funded by right-wing foundations, have been attacking public schools and teachers as their key argument for why privatization must occur.

Moreover, the conservatives in the state and their media outlets detest the fact that the state teachers' union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), plays such a large role in state electoral politics. On top of all that, we have the agenda of Obama's Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which has enabled the right-wing teacher-bashers, but basically doing the same thing--putting most of the blame for school problems on the shoulders of teachers.

Wisconsin teachers stand up to Gov. Scott Walker and his union-busting "budget repair bill"
Wisconsin teachers stand up to Gov. Scott Walker and his union-busting "budget repair bill" (Mark Riechers)

Don't get me wrong--some criticism is justified. There are gross inequalities and serious problems in schools. The solution, however, is not to privatize, but to transform those schools and the underlying economic and social inequalities in the communities that surround them.

WHEN I was in Madison for the demonstrations against Walker's bill, I heard many union members chanting, "It's not about the money, it's about the rights"--basically stating that they were willing to take all the economic cuts in the bill if they could keep their collective bargaining rights. On the other side, there were figures like Rose Ann DeMoro, the executive director of National Nurses United, who have claimed that labor has never been in a better bargaining position, and that the line should be held at no concessions. Where do you stand on this, and what is your sense of where other teachers stand?

I BELIEVE that the WEAC and AFSCME leaderships took this position for tactical reasons--they were sincere in their willingness to make that concession, and would have done so had the Republicans had any interest in compromise. But that wasn't the case.

Clearly, most public-sector workers know that we are underpaid relative to private-sector workers with equivalent education. The pension payments we get are part of our overall benefits package. We have taken lower wages for years to make sure our pensions are secure. Workers now are very worried that they won't be able to make it financially.

TEACHER SICK-OUTS across the state were integral to the first several days of protest, when the state Capitol building in Madison was occupied. Can you give us a sense of how these were organized?

SPONTANEOUSLY. STATE law prohibits public-sector unions from striking or engaging illegal work actions. The president of WEAC did, however, call on teachers and workers to show up in Madison and to "sit down as close as you can" to the state Capitol. Many teachers saw that as a nod to call in sick.

Teachers used social media (e-mail, Facebook and texting) extensively and old-fashioned communication techniques (meeting, talking and phone calling) to try to convince colleagues to call in. At one point, there were a few dozen people crammed into the Rethinking Schools office in Milwaukee, using the phones as a base of operation.

Teachers went back to school because of their understanding that working-class parents could only be imposed on so long before sentiment would turn against us. Short of a general strike that is well-planned and -coordinated, one sector--particularly one that is so intimately connected to caring for the children of the community--can't politically sustain such a work stoppage.

WHAT ROLE have networks like Rethinking Schools or the Educators' Network for Social Justice (ENSJ) played in these mobilizations?

ENSJ HAS used its large e-list to keep people informed of daily protests and actions. We have also shared background articles, sample flyers and other materials through the list. Rethinking Schools has opened its offices for meetings and organizing, including one hastily called mass meeting that within two hours drew nearly 100 teachers on a Sunday night.

THE FIRST day I was in Madison--the day teachers went back to work--I met an elementary school teacher who told me that her co-workers were discussing how to go on strike. She expressed that because she taught at a low-income school where the free meal students got was often their only meal for the day, teachers were very reluctant to just leave. On the other hand, she said teachers had begun conversations about how to open the school with a skeleton staff, as a child-care facility while most teachers continued to go to the daily protests.

How widespread do you think these conversations are, and do you think there is a possibility of more workplace actions in the future?

THE CONVERSATIONS are happening daily. There has been a qualitative growth in class consciousness among not only public-sector workers, but also the general population in Milwaukee. There are, however, conservative teachers. Some voted for Scott Walker and are socially conservative. In a democratic union movement, they have the right and should have the opportunity to express their opinions to our membership.

In the end, though, the overwhelming sentiment is to fight back. We will not let our loss of the initial battle deter us.

WHAT DO you think it will take to win the struggle in Wisconsin?

PERSEVERANCE. EDUCATION. Political organizing and a multi-tactic approach. There is a real need for people to understand that only through several simultaneous tracks will we win this.

There has to be a legal approach to try to challenge many of these laws and regulations in court. There has to be direct action--including pickets, protests, rallies, creative nonviolence disruption of Republican events. There has to be massive educational efforts--printed materials, YouTube videos, listening sessions.

There has to be electoral work--recall campaigns of the Republican Senators, and in one year, the governor. There also has to be support for pro-labor candidates in any election in the state. The politicians need to get the message: If you attack working families in Wisconsin, you're going to be out of a job. Period.

On a strategic level, public-sector workers and unions have to build solid coalitions not only with private-sector unions, but the broader working class as a whole. Particular work has to be done with people of color who have been disenfranchised for so long, and who have legitimate complaints about the racial and class inequalities that have been part of public institutions for too long.

WHAT DO you think is the significance of the movement in Wisconsin for teachers and students nationally? How do you hope this will affect the national conversation about education reform?

IN WISCONSIN, teachers have played a leading role in the working class struggle against these attacks. This kind of role is unprecedented. While we have temporarily lost the first battle for collective bargaining rights, we will continue that struggle while now opening up a new front to battle the draconian budget cuts proposed for the next two years.

The absurd "reform proposals" being put forth by the Duncan cabal are damaging to the education of children, particularly those who live in communities of color. Duncan and company have no clue what life is like in the classroom. They have no clue what our students' lives are like in neighborhoods that suffer Depression-like economic conditions. They did nothing to try to protect the rights of teachers when under attack by our Governor.

One of our chants in Wisconsin is "Shame, Shame, Shame." The same should be chanted wherever Duncan appears.

It's my hope that what we have started here in Wisconsin will not only spread throughout the country, but will be a basis upon which we can organize with broadening circles of parents and activists to demand real reform of our educational system--and for that matter, the entire political and economic system in this country.

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