Features
Kristi Lacroix
Jeffrey Phelps/Genesis
Kristi Lacroix

Teacher walkout

Politics | As conservative reforms gain momentum, teachers unions find themselves losing money and members

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

Wisconsin public high-school teacher Kristi Lacroix has endured yells, curses, laughs, derision, and threats to her face.

It isn't students who give her grief, though. It's the other adults. One woman spit on Lacroix while she shopped for groceries at Pick'n Save. At Capt. Mike's Beer & Burger Bar, a table of teachers moved when she sat nearby, while another patron suggested someone should assassinate her.

Her sin? Being a teachers union member who opposed the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

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As a political conservative, Lacroix had become frustrated when she learned her union supported liberal candidates and agendas. But the Kenosha, Wis., teacher was legally obligated to pay over $100 a month in dues-until Walker brought reforms last year. That November, Lacroix, a member of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), appeared in a 30-second television ad endorsing Walker. The governor had done the right thing for Wisconsin, she told the camera. The recall attempt felt "a little like sour grapes."

After the commercial aired, Lacroix received a stream of hate mail calling her "idiot," "Judas," and worse. "You support Walker," read one: "Hope you share a jail cell with him."

Some of the vitriol came from Lacroix's own colleagues, which she says is "embarrassing and makes me feel sad." But dozens of others wrote to offer support or say they'd also like to leave their union: "I'm certainly not alone. I'm just the only one willing to be vocal."

Lacroix seems to be one of many teachers fed up with union dues and politics. Since Walker pushed through legislation last year making public-sector union membership voluntary, WEAC (it's pronounced WHEE-ack) has lost a fifth of its members. Last year the union laid off 40 percent of its staff as it dealt with budget cuts and engaged in what executive director Dan Burkhalter called a "membership continuation" campaign.

WEAC's parent, the National Education Association, is in the throes of a crisis itself: It has lost over 100,000 members since 2010, and expects the bleeding to continue.

NEA, the nation's largest union, represents one out of every 100 Americans through its state affiliates, such as WEAC. Since 2009, several affiliates have reported declining income and membership. Income from dues at the Arizona Education Association, for instance, dropped from $7.5 million to $5.4 million in one year. NEA had to bail out the group's Indiana affiliate in 2009 after it reported a four-year, multimillion-dollar budget deficit.

The bailout followed a mass exodus from public worker unions in Indiana. Gov. Mitch Daniels triggered the exodus in 2005 when he eliminated government-sector bargaining power by executive order. This February, four days before crowds descended on Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI, Daniels braved crowds of protesters in the Statehouse to sign legislation, making Indiana the nation's 23rd "right-to-work" state by outlawing forced union membership in the private sector. It was the first state to do so in over a decade.

NEA officials say collective bargaining attacks in Indiana and elsewhere, like Idaho, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have squeezed state and national budgets. In Wisconsin, Walker's reform last year angered some public-sector union members by increasing their contributions to retirement and health plans, and restraining bargaining power. Demonstrators at the Wisconsin Capitol did not intimidate Republicans into scuttling the bill, which Walker signed in March that year. Union leaders then helped organize 50,000 volunteers in a battle to recall the governor.

Meanwhile, since the law also made union membership voluntary for state workers, thousands of them, including teachers, stopped paying dues. In the time between Walker's signing of the union reform bill and his recall election, WEAC lost 20,000 of its 90,000 members. The Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a WEAC rival, lost 6,000 of 17,000.

On June 5, Walker won the recall election by 7 percentage points. His victory suggested to some pundits that unions were weakening in political clout.

Some 7,403 union member delegates spent the Fourth of July at NEA's four-day leadership summit in Washington, D.C. Local unions appoint representatives to attend the annual summit, where they vote union policy changes up or down. This July, delegates used markers to scribble notes of support to President Barack Obama on a large banner titled "NEA Educators for Obama." The NEA has already voted to endorse Obama's reelection-and has never supported a Republican presidential candidate.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel tried to rally kindred spirits during a speech: "We must do everything we can to reelect President Obama. ... The other side will outspend us, but we can't let them outwork us." The crowd responded with cheers and applause. When one Republican teacher spoke up at the conference, attendees booed.

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