Before the Republican takeover of state government, the leaders of the Wisconsin Education Association Council were very influential people who wielded a great deal of political power.
They were extremely well funded by a system that forced schools to deduct union dues from individual teachers, whether they wanted to be members or not. And they used a big chunk of that wealth to pressure state lawmakers into passing union-friendly policies.
Notice we didn't say "education friendly policies." Education has very little to do with the teachers union’s agenda. Its main function is to constantly angle for a bigger piece of the taxpayer pie, and WEAC did that very effectively prior to 2011.
All of that became clearer this week when the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board released a report showing that WEAC spent more than any other organization on lobbying state government in 2009-10.
The union spent a total of $2.5 million in those years to wine, dine and twist arms in Madison, according to the Associated Press. That amount was on top of the millions of dollars in campaign contributions WEAC hands out to friendly legislative candidates.
All of that money will buy a lot of influence, particularly when union-friendly Democrats are in power.
What did the union use its influence for? More money to spend on student books, computers and learning programs? Nope.
WEAC lobbyists fought successfully to eliminate the cap on the percentage of raises that teachers could bargain for during contract negotiations, despite the obvious harm that would do to pinched school budgets.
Union lobbyists also fought hard to clip their competition by demanding increased "accountability" for charter schools. That means the union wants to impose more bureaucratic red tape on charter schools, so they won't be as innovative and successful, and won't attract as many regular public school students.
Not surprisingly, WEAC lobbyists did more than a third of their work in 2009 during state budget deliberations. Lawmakers were figuring how to spend tax dollars, and the union wanted to make sure schools got enough to cover the cost of their raises, overpriced WEA Trust health insurance and benefits.
Overall, WEAC lobbyists spent 12,364 hours on the job in Madison in 2009-10, according to the newspaper. That averages out to 17 hours per day, every day, over a two-year period.
WEAC was never an education association, despite its deceptive name. It’s a political association designed to gain wealth and power.
Has the revenue stopped flowing?
Suddenly the union’s wealth and political clout may be in danger, due to changes imposed by Act 10.
The biggest difference is that the new law bans public schools from deducting union membership dues from teachers’ paychecks. That means WEAC has to count on loyal members to pay dues voluntarily.
It’s a measurement of how much rank-and-file teachers really support their union.
Thus far things don’t seem to be going well. WEAC announced Monday that it will be laying off 42 employees, or about 40 percent of its workforce, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
That’s a sign that teachers are not very eager to voluntarily pay dues, and the union treasury may be running a bit dry. With only a percentage of its former revenue coming in, it’s difficult to picture WEAC spending big money on future lobbying efforts.
Suddenly the big spending political bully seems like a toothless shadow of its former self.
WEAC Executive Director Dan Burkhalter blamed the Walker administration and it’s “union-busting legislation” for the lack of revenue and layoffs.
If the union has anyone to blame, it has to be its rank-and-file members. Teachers have apparently been slow to provide WEAC with bank account information for direct dues payments, despite the teams of “home visitors” that have been dispatched to pressure members over the summer.
That situation says more about the union than it does about Walker or state government. If teachers really supported their union, they would pay their dues. If they don’t support their union, should they be forced to be members and pay dues?
If the union is not an organization of willing participants, does it really deserve to have a major influence in Madison? The suspicion is that WEAC is really nothing more than a small group of radical leaders who have been forcing captive members to finance their agenda for years.
Of course it’s too early to tell how many local unions will survive union recertification votes, and how many teachers will eventually voluntarily pay dues. The flow of union dollars will surely increase to some degree when school starts and teachers are back to work.
That’s when we will learn more definitively if WEAC is truly an organization that represents the majority of state teachers. If that’s not the case, then it should not play a significant role in shaping state education policy. And with a lack of revenue, it will no longer be able to afford to purchase that type of political influence, anyway.
The teachers in most Wisconsin public schools are now basically free agents. It will be fascinating to see whether they choose to unite willingly under the WEAC banner, or if the union as we know it is destined to fade into the history books.