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Why I Protest

Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh
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(DISCLOSURE: As a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I am a non-unionized state employee. The increased benefit contributions will cost me nearly $500 per paycheck.)

Outside the Wisconsin State Capitol (2/26/11) Credit: Eric Brunsell

Public sector employees and their proponents are now entering the third week of massive protests at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. This last weekend marked the second Saturday in a row with 65,000 or more participating in rallies - the largest rallies Madison has seen since the Vietnam War. Hundreds of protestors have set up camp inside the capitol, sleeping on the cold marble floors and eating pizza and subs donated by individuals from the United States, France, Egypt, Ecuador and dozens of other countries. Outside of Madison, thousands of workers have been rallying in cities across the State. In addition, supporters throughout the country and around the world have been rallying in solidarity.

At the center of the protest is a budget repair bill proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Among the provisions in the bill are proposals that increase the amount that public employees contribute to their benefits, provide for selling of public utilities (without the requirement for competitive bids), and changes to how Medicare decisions are made. However, the most controversial of the provisions is the emasculation of the ability of public sector unions to collectively bargain benefits and workplace rules. The public sector unions have conceded the increased benefit contributions, but stand firm in their opposition to changes in collective bargaining.

Over the past 15 days, I have visited the state capitol more than I have in the previous decade combined. The reduction in compensation is not why I have carried signs, marched, and grabbed the bullhorn to lead chants from the capitol floor. To me, the attack on more than 50 years of collective bargaining is an attack on the voice of teachers, an attack that comes with a devastating human toll.

In other countries, teachers are referred to as Nation Builders. In Wisconsin, they are called greedy.

"I am not selfish," wrote a former student, now a high school science teacher, on Facebook in response to being confronted by a counter protestor. I sent an e-mail of encouragement to an elementary teacher and she replied that she read it at breakfast on her birthday and broke down crying. "It must be the stress," she said. Another former student, told me that he has decided to quit the profession, saying, "I love what I do, but is it really worth it? Is this what people really think about us?" Over the past week, I have talked with dozens of public educators that have been demoralized over the rhetoric surrounding this bill - upset with the loss of collective bargaining, but devastated by the contempt that is being shown for public workers, specifically teachers.

Educators chant: "This is what democracy looks like."

From the beginning, proponents of this budget fix have laid the blame for the state deficit at the feet of hard working state employees and their unions. In January, Governor Walker stated, "We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots." TV and radio advertising campaigns, paid for by lobby groups like the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce business association and Americans for Prosperity, have decried public workers' "lavish" compensation, claiming that "it is not fair," that public sector employees have not made concessions (which, of course, ignores forced furloughs over the past two years for state workers). Even after union leaders agreed to the increased benefit contributions, the cry of "Its not fair" continues.

This message has taken hold in letters to the editor, in the press, and in neighborhood discussions. I have heard people call teachers spoiled, greedy and lazy. Public workers have been called, "a necessary evil." Others have said, "Public workers do not create anything." A friend even told me, "Those state workers are a bunch of lazy @!#$." When I informed him that I worked for the state, he said, "Well, not you . . . you work your tail off."

The reality is that public educators in Wisconsin have been making concessions for nearly 20 years. For most of the last two decades, state law limited teacher union contracts to increased compensation (salary and benefit) just over 3%. As healthcare prices skyrocketed, teachers negotiated to maintain benefits and forgo increases in salary.

Losing Our Voice

The issue is deeper than just compensation and taking a "fair share" of the suffering caused by an economy in shambles. Teachers in public schools, and the unions that represent them, are increasingly under attack. The teachers' voice is missing from education reform discussions. If a teacher points out that a standardized test isn't a good measure of success, they are quickly shot down as being a protectionist. If a teacher points out the inequities in funding of schools in poor communities, they are labeled greedy for wanting to spend more taxpayer money. If a teacher expresses concern that merit pay hasn't been shown to work, or is based on poor assumptions of quality, they are told that they are afraid of being evaluated.

As we saw during NBC's "Education Nation," the teacher unions are often the only voice standing for public educators. This voice does not cry out in defense of the status quo, but demands that education reform is done with teachers, not to them.

For example, the American Federation of Teachers recently announced a plan to overhaul teacher evaluation and dismissal. The plan provides a timeline for remediation, clear consequences, and increased collaboration between administrators and classroom teachers. A few weeks ago, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (the largest association of Wisconsin teacher unions) released a proposal for comprehensive performance evaluations, which recognizes that teachers have different professional needs at different stages in their careers.

Teacher unions are not blameless in the challenges facing education in the US, but they must be part of the solution. Earlier in February, the U.S. Department of Education convened a two-day conference in Denver that highlighted positive relationships between district administrators and teacher unions that have moved education forward.

Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary) "If I had a Hammer"

"We have to reject the idea that collaboration is a code-word for cowards," Education Secretary Arnie Duncan said. "Nothing is more demanding at the district level." He continues, ""Collectively you have the power to stop the nation's decline. The best solutions will come at the local level."

Unfortunately, elected officials in Wisconsin and many other states see things quite differently. As former Washington D.C. public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee famously said, "Cooperation, collaboration, and consensus-building are way overrated." These officials seek to end collective bargaining and eliminate the voice of the teacher, through their union representatives, in educational policy discussions.

I believe that strong public schools need strong teachers and strong teachers need a voice - a collective voice amplified by their unions. This is why I protest.

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Eric Brunsell

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

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Eric Brunsell's picture
Eric Brunsell
Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

Even if the politics & rhetoric get nasty, be proud of what you do. Your service to your community is what makes our state strong.

Maria Mallon's picture

We in Florida are so glad that you are fighting the fight. Looks like we will be fighting our own fight soon. Voters are uninformed as to what these "public servants" stand for (looks like corporations again). Instead of doing research, people take what is fed to them and regurgitate it - it doesn't have to be the truth. Looks like these governors have no problem giving corporate welfare - didn't the illustrious governor of Wisconsin just give a big break to corporations while slashing education? The plan is to pit middle class against middle class - that way no one will be paying attention to the top 2%. Keep America dumb (slash education) and they will keep voting the way they do - against their own interests - amazing.

Chad Janowski's picture
Chad Janowski
Biology & Environmental Science Educator from Shawano, WI

Eric, I am so grateful that you have the courage to bring this discussion to this national education forum! Your actions in joining the protests must send a clear message to your pre-service teachers what is at risk for public education. Good educators know that what we do is not just a job and a pay check. It is about the futures that high quality instruction can make or brake.

Bailey Myers, a Shawano Community High School student, addressed our school board at their last meeting. Her message: spend money on what matters. SMART Boards and other pricey technology is useless if the instructor does not know how to effectively engage students in learning. Aides in the elementary school often contribute more in helping students learn to read than many parents. When the belt tightens what will we be left with?

It is sad to hear the discussions in the lunch room among outstanding educators contemplating other career options. Sadder yet is the public opinion that views educators and other public sector workers as greedy freeloaders. What price is a well educated society worth? When will America give educators the regard that we deserve? Respect would at least be a great start.

Christy Crawford's picture


Thank you for your post! I'm cutting and pasting excerpts of your blog for my 5th graders
(Revolution 2.0 Reporters) to analyze on Monday. Loving your passion, loving the videos and hoping your voice will awaken the inner activist in every educator! Please check out and let me know if you are willing to Skype with my kids for just 2 or 3 minutes.

Thanks (in advance) for your consideration!

Tim McClung's picture
Tim McClung
WV for Education Reform

Excerpt from "Charter Schools and Collective Bargaining"

"The traditional industrial model dominates teacher collective
bargaining today. As described by Edward Dirkswager of the
Center for Policy Studies,

The typical organizational structure of our school system
contains a rigid hierarchy of roles and decision-making
power with teachers firmly positioned at the bottom of this
hierarchy. Very simply, teachers are employees, and like
most employees in rigid hierarchical organizations, they
have a limited range of decision-making powers.

Is now the time to completely re-design the existing legal doctrine between teachers and districts? Can we make teachers the employer?

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

So important that teachers in America continue to fight the good fight over these vital issues. As an external observer, I am horrifed by what I see as the erosion of teacher's rights and, effectively, the dismantling of public education's principles. I fear for what effect that this kind of legislation will have on democracy in the US.

I know that if anything like this happened in Australia (and it almost did in 2007 with Workchoices, which cost Howard the election) there would be an uproar and massive strikes across the country. Any chance of this happening in the US?

Melanie Reap's picture
Melanie Reap
Elementary teacher preparation - science methods

I teach at a university literally across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin. My students have been following the issues very closely as many of them are from Wisconsin. They are usually a fairly mellow bunch, socially conscious but non-confrontational; however, the actions of Gov. Walker have ignited a fuse of activism within them. Republicans within the Minnesota legislature have introduced a similar bill which the students are following with great intent. We do have the luxury of having a Democratic governor who strongly supports unions.

(I should add my own disclosure - Winona State University has a unionized faculty)

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