In 2011, as the Great Recession hit public coffers, Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker addressed a purported budget crisis by attacking public workers. Walker’s signature bill, Act 10, struck down public-sector unions’ ability to automatically collect dues and limited bargaining to wages capped at inflation. Teachers could no longer negotiate class sizes. Nurses were forced to accept mandatory overtime. Unions lost money and members. Similar anti-union legislation quickly spread across the United States. These state-level offensives culminated in a national policy shift in the summer of 2018, when the Supreme Court’s Janus ruling made it illegal for public-sector unions to automatically gather dues from employees. Critics wrung their hands and pronounced it a nail in the coffin for public unions. What started as a Wisconsin union problem has now become a national one.
Yet today, teacher militancy sweeps the nation. Teachers from West Virginia’s fifty-five counties filed onto picket lines, the second time in a year. Strikes have surged across Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and California. Chicago charter school teacher unionists are fighting against the racist project of education privatization. Amid this burgeoning resistance, Wisconsin unionists appear a cautionary tale of defeat, the concussed victims of a brutal first round. Union members made up less than 14 percent of the state’s workforce before Act 10; four years later they were barely 8 percent. Teachers were hit especially hard by the bill. Many fled the profession; more than 10 percent of teachers in Wisconsin quit the year after Act 10, a spike from the 6.4 percent exit rates the year before. This contradictory landscape raises a question: are today’s teachers’ unions the victorious challengers of capitalism, or among its many victims?
What constitutes success for a movement, and what constitutes defeat? The long history of Wisconsin’s largest teacher union local, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), helps us answer this question. MTEA rebuffed solidarity with civil rights and labor groups in its first decades in order to secure bread-and-butter benefits for its predominantly white teachers. MTEA’s narrow self-interest fueled the conservative movement that led the charge against public education and teachers’ unions. Yet, starting in the mid-1980s, MTEA activists began forging a new vision for teacher unionism and public education. This vision has been exported to teachers’ union’s nationwide, thanks to their local activism and their nationally circulated progressive education magazine, Rethinking Schools. Today, MTEA proudly declares itself a social justice union, with racial justice and strong community relations central to its mission.
If we measure unions’ successes exclusively in terms of the short-term outcomes—did they get the goods, did they defeat the bad politicians—we ignore the broader scope and power of union activity. Workers’ collective power does not only come from these wins; it also comes from creating and nurturing a space for future movements and activists to take root. This dimension of unionism takes time and can be difficult to detect. But such tasks are arguably the more vital project of a union: to change workers’ sense of what is possible, to sow solidarity, to bring faraway aspirations into reach.
This vantage reveals a subtle but crucial truth: Unions don’t organize workers; capitalism does that work. Unions, instead, reorganize workers. Our current economic system has forced education to accommodate itself to hypercompetitiveness. Teachers must prepare students for high-stakes standardized tests, quantitative measures that compress education into a market value. Schools are tasked with grooming students to become not participants in democracy, but future widget workers of the world. Public goods and institutions are depleted of resources. Teachers’ unions, in this light, must do more than fight for better wages; they need to organize workers and schools and communities in order to counter capitalism’s corrosive effects. Yet unions are not preordained to organize for progressive movements against capitalism—to demand investment in care labor, spaces for play, time for art, taxes on the rich, and meaningful education for people of all income levels, black and brown and white. As the history of MTEA illustrates, unions can deepen and exacerbate social division created under capitalism, but they can also bring people together in the name of a common good. They can build our collective capacity to imagine the world we want.
In MTEA’s first decades, it cast itself as an organization of professionals. Teaching was one of the few paid employment opportunities available to women at the turn of the twentieth century. Many who became educators were eager to distance themselves from their working-class backgrounds. A number of teachers in Milwaukee and elsewhere had little interest in joining labor federations, preferring to seek workplace improvements by emphasizing their genteelness and professionalism rather than by forging class solidarities. Milwaukee teachers first organized under the National Education Association (NEA), which was at the time unaffiliated with organized labor. The NEA held meetings in grand ballrooms. Its leaders, many of whom were district administrators, mailed teachers dainty handkerchiefs along with membership solicitations. The competing teacher organization, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), was a member of the local labor federation. Unlike the NEA, it encouraged teachers to explicitly use the words “union” rather than “association” and “strike” rather than “professional withdrawal program.” The point of a union, AFT leaders asserted, was to draw members into political struggle. To do otherwise, as one AFT leader claimed, would be “to sterilize and fertilize the plant at the same time.”
When Milwaukee teachers did eventually seek collective bargaining rights in 1963—thereby converting their association to a union—it was due to the organization’s predominantly white teachers’ growing fear of black students. A wave of migration of black families from southern cities crested in Milwaukee in the early 1960s, and many white teachers saw a union as a means to secure enhanced corporal punishment rights, stronger powers to remove “disruptive” students from the classrooms, and greater protections for teachers from “student attackers” in the city’s predominantly black schools.
By the mid-1960s, a winnowing welfare state put schools and educators under great pressure to solve society’s ills. Whereas the New Deal programs of the 1930s addressed inequality through jobs programs, minimum wages, and labor protections, in the 1960s the state rolled back its commitment to economic redistribution and instead turned to schemes to develop human capital, such as job training programs. The War on Poverty took aim at the “culture of poverty”—the behaviors and dispositions of the poor—and education became one of its main weapons. Legal rulings called on schools to desegregate but left in place the vast inequalities between black and white neighborhoods. Public schools were left to shoulder these systemic inequities. Teachers were responsible for curing the effects of rising poverty, housing insecurity, and unemployment, while earning wages that only just enabled subsistence.
As teachers were increasingly asked to solve society’s problems, they understandably wanted more control of their jobs. But in MTEA, racist fears and narrow self-interest structured their concerns. White teachers looked to gain power over black students, rather than build power with black and poor communities for better healthcare, housing, and employment. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the union leadership rejected civil rights movements’ demands for desegregation. In 1974 MTEA disaffiliated from the state teachers’ union, partially in rejection of the state union’s increasingly progressive political direction. While these moves enabled MTEA to secure strong contracts for its teachers in the short-term, they crippled teachers’ capacity to build broader political movements that defended public schools in the long-term. MTEA rendered itself vulnerable to the rising tide of education privatization that would soon sweep through Milwaukee.
By the 1980s, jobs were hemorrhaging from Milwaukee and incarceration rates soared. The conservative government privatized the state’s basic welfare provision; Milwaukee became a laboratory for national welfare reform. Milwaukee’s children, especially its children of color, increasingly came to school burdened by the traumas of poverty, their parents struggling to find work, shelter, and healthcare. The legitimacy of public schools themselves began to crack, as the growing conservative education movement took the lead in criticizing the quality of the city’s schools.
In 1990, the nation’s first comprehensive school voucher program opened in Milwaukee. It was created with political and financial support from conservative philanthropists invested in the ideological project of privatization and religious evangelicals interested in skirting laws preventing state aid for religious schools. The program also received support from a cadre of black community leaders who saw the free market as the solution to racial inequalities baked into public institutions. Howard Fuller, a black education reform activist in Milwaukee and former superintendent of Milwaukee public schools who had butted heads with MTEA for decades, formed alliances with the conservative philanthropies, like the Bradley and Walton Family Foundations, to become a national leader of the “school choice” movement. (Years later, Fuller supported Betsy DeVos in her nomination for U.S. Secretary of Education.) Thanks to Fuller and others’ leadership, a number of black families were drawn to school choice to circumvent a teachers’ union that had turned their backs on them, and to seek quality education for children of color, be it publicly or privately provided. The private financial investment combined with the claims for racial justice made the Milwaukee voucher experiment a political triumph in its early years, incubating the national conservative reform movement. By the 2010s, education privatization had become a major rallying point for Wisconsin’s conservative movement against the public sector, helping Republicans secure the state legislature and governorship in 2011.
Despite the increasingly politicized landscape of education in Milwaukee, MTEA saw its primary function as negotiating and administrating teachers’ benefit packages rather than fighting for students and teachers in defense of public education. Members had very little say or stake in the union’s operations, much less its vision and priorities.
In 1981, a feisty group of progressive teachers came together to form a caucus that challenged the MTEA leadership’s apolitical posture. They saw their role as unionists as integrally connected to fights for communities and schools, especially when it came to racial justice. Though predominantly white, this group of teachers articulated a vision of public education that grappled with stark inequalities and sought to inspire the movements necessary to transform them. Their caucus was explicitly critical of MTEA’s leadership, its heavy reliance on union staff to execute the union priorities, and its failure to address racism. To augment their work, these educators, along with other community activists, founded Rethinking Schools in 1986, which now serves as a leading voice in progressive educational reform around the country. The progressive caucus distributed copies of Rethinking Schools to building representatives at MTEA’s monthly meetings. Its issues chronicled Milwaukee’s specific challenges, from curriculum adopted by the school board, to the union’s negotiations, to city politics. It produced some of the earliest reporting on the Bradley Foundation, a Milwaukee-based conservative organization that funded the city’s school choice initiative.
By the 2000s, neoliberal education programs had moved from the fringe to center, as Republicans and Democrats alike adopted the mantle of “choice” and “accountability.” This agenda subjected public schools to market standards, forcing competition by awarding aid to only top-performing schools and sanctioning poorly performing ones. With an eye to winning funds from Barack Obama’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program, in 2009 Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, and Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor, Tom Barrett, began plotting the mayoral takeover of the Milwaukee public schools, a rumored RTTT eligibility criterion. The proposed takeover would dissolve the city’s elected school board, causing the predominantly black and brown families attending Milwaukee public schools to lose democratic representation, and eventually the closure of many schools.
The threat of mayoral takeover spurred a new urgency among those fighting for public education in Milwaukee. Despite support for the takeover from key power players—the Democratic mayor, the Democratic governor, state legislators, business alliances such as the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, and the national group Democrats for Education Reform—many teachers, students, and community activists fought back. Some two dozen community groups, spearheaded by the teachers’ union, formed a coalition to demand a democratically governed, public school system. This coalition organized protests, including at the homes of obstinate Democratic legislators. They attended hearings. They wrote letters to the editor. They picketed the press for failing to report on the plan. In the process, disparate groups became unified. Together, they articulated a grassroots, pro-labor, pro-democratic, anti-racist vision for public education. Within months, the “Stop the Takeover of MPS” coalition, as they called themselves, had indeed stopped the takeover. But their work was far from over.
In 2010, when Act 10 was still a twinkle in Scott Walker’s eye, Rethinking Schools founder, leader of MTEA’s progressive caucus, and anti–mayoral takeover activist Bob Peterson decided to run for MTEA president. When he won the election in April 2011, shortly after Walker’s Act 10 passed, MTEA found itself guided by people accustomed to organizing. Immediately following the law’s passage, Peterson and his allies set to work re-organizing their union. In lieu of collective bargaining, Peterson declared, MTEA would embrace collective action. Instead of contract protections, community alliances would strengthen schools and classrooms.
Today, when asked how they got involved in their union, many Milwaukee teachers hiss through gritted teeth, “I’m here because of Scott Walker.” One teacher I spoke to in 2017, as the MTEA geared up for more budget cuts, pushed up her sleeves and told me, “Oh it’s Scott Walker. He organized us here. He’s woken the sleeping giant.” Milwaukee teachers managed to defeat another attempted takeover in 2016, this time from the state of Wisconsin. Working with community coalitions, the teachers have mobilized to oppose unregulated charter school expansion. They have successfully advocated to build a community schools program that provides wraparound services for students and families and operates through community decision-making, rather than by command of private management companies. Teachers have joined with students to fight against bringing more police into schools, demanding instead more funding for educational resources. The union, in other words, has come to life.
This revitalization has happened in part because of the loss of legal protections for Wisconsin unions. Milwaukee teachers have been forced to give up their all-too-common understanding of a union as an insurance company-cum-vending machine: put in dues, jimmy out legal protections if things go bad with the boss. Act 10 dismantled the laws that enabled unions to passively accumulate resources and powers. In today’s Wisconsin, if teachers want a union, they have to show up and fight for one by actively organizing.
It’s an uphill battle. Simply to be recognized by the state under Act 10, each union must conduct an annual recertification election and win support of 51 percent of all eligible members. Imagine if Governor Walker had been held to the same standards, forced to win an election every single year with 51 percent of the possible electorate. It would prove an impossible threshold that would occupy all of his administration’s time and energy.
But following Act 10, MTEA committed to training teachers to organize. Teachers regularly gather in the union’s conference room to discuss strategies and skills at the building level. But they have also taught themselves how to organize for the struggles outside of classrooms through popular education workshops on topics like political economy and its effects on schools. “Working in public education is political,” MTEA vice president Amy Mizialko told her fellow teachers during one organizing meeting in 2017. “It’s a fight about our taxes, it’s a fight about our communities, it’s a fight about what our kids are going to do, what they’re going to learn. . . . Whether we want it to be political or not, we are. And our union is engaged . . . we have a voice and power that move us forward.”
In addition, the union has brought new focus to the work of educational assistants (EAs), the unsung, low-wage workers, predominantly women of color, who provide vital classroom support to students and teachers yet often live paycheck to paycheck, working several jobs to make ends meet. In 2014, MTEA embarked on a campaign to raise EA wages, linking up with local Fight for $15 activists. As part of this campaign, school board members spent a day walking in the shoes of EA members, to see and feel what life was like for someone earning $12 an hour. Board members were picked up at their homes at 5 a.m. to bring them to an EA’s first shift job, then to their second, even third. Thanks to their organizing, EAs earned themselves a wage increase. In 2017 MTEA also made a small but radical change to its by-laws, allowing EAs to hold union officer positions for the first time (they had previously only been allowed to serve as officers in their own sub-unit). With near-unanimous support, MTEA representatives voted to ensure the organization’s most vulnerable members had the power to lead the organization, bringing rank-and-file democracy to a new level in the union.
Now, when Milwaukee teachers want to win demands, they don’t send a cadre to closed-door bargaining sessions. Instead, a throng of teachers gathers in MTEA’s “war room,” a sprawling basement lair with butcher paper taped to walls charting support at each building. They crowd around folding tables, phoning their fellow teachers late in the evening to tell them about the plan to pack the school board meeting the next week, or to wear their “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts to school. They hold community events to build support for their demands. One February 2017 weekend, for example, in anticipation of Walker’s 2017 budget, MTEA hosted a community “art build” to make banners, signs, and parachutes for the upcoming protests. A local graphic designer, a thirty-something Latino man with warm eyes, told me some of his artist friends asked him to join. “It’s a good use of my built-up rage,” he smiled at me. An elementary-school student showed me their hand-drawn sign, bright scribbles that read, “$9999 for Schools.” Dozens of screen-printed canvases were hung up to dry from a clothesline stretched across the room, fluttering like prayer flags. One read, “Public Schools Are the Heart of Democracy.” Another said, “Organize Students, Workers, and Immigrants,” with a woodblock image of people huddled under an umbrella; deep chisel marks made their faces look weary and fierce. Like the struggle had made them strong.
It is a good problem that, today, when people talk about teachers’ strikes, they want to talk about success. Recently, teachers in Los Angeles won a charter school moratorium, fewer cops in schools, legal support for immigrant families, and promises for more social workers and librarians. Many are energized by the prospect of taxing billionaires to fund smaller class sizes, art classes, and playgrounds with grass. No doubt, these are successes. But what makes each of these victories a success isn’t simply that teachers got the thing they demanded—the raise, the moratorium, the better funding plan. They are successes because the organizing that achieved those demands created space for future movements to grow. Each action brought people together. Each demand brought closer the dream for a better world.
A union can succeed on these terms even when winning short-term goals remains out of reach. Conversely, a union can make short-term gains while failing to achieve these movement aims. The early generation of MTEA won strong contracts for its teachers but sacrificed broad solidarity and political analysis. More recently, though MTEA lost key labor rights in 2011, they also reasserted their power to organize movements, to foment big ideas, to build bonds among disparate groups. Over three decades of political attacks on public schools and unions, Milwaukee teachers have developed the ideological architecture of social justice unionism. Their vision has fertilized movements for progressive education across the country, despite their short-term defeats. They remind us that while laws can protect unions, it is people dreaming and fighting together that make them strong.
Eleni Schirmer is a PhD candidate at UW-Madison in Educational Policy Studies and Curriculum & Instruction. Former co-president of the nation’s oldest graduate employee union, UW-Madison’s Teaching Assistants’ Association, her writing has appeared in Jacobin, Labor Notes, The Progressive, and espnW.