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.
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.
The obvious bias doesn't make things easier for NEA secretary-treasurer Rebecca Pringle, who showed a daunting series of charts and budget figures. NEA expects to lose another 140,000 members over the next year, amounting to $27 million in lost dues. If projections prove correct, the union will have lost 308,000 active teachers and education professionals between 2010 and 2014-a 14 percent chunk of its workforce. "We have to change," Pringle told delegates.
Change already occurred in NEA offices this year, where leadership reportedly dismissed several executives, downsized 401(k) benefits, and convinced 56 staffers to accept an early retirement buyout. The cuts were serious enough that NEA's own staff, unhappy with negotiations for a new three-year contract, picketed NEA's Washington headquarters. The staff members are organized within the NEA-a union within a union.
At the summit, Pringle blamed the budget problems partly on "a recession that just won't end" and "political attacks that have turned brutal." The union did manage to scrabble together $5 million to create an "Affiliate Defense Fund," apparently intended to stop attacks on collective bargaining power in various states.
To some conservatives, the widespread membership losses, added to the events in Wisconsin, spell doom for public-sector unions. "The abject failure of the unions to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ... marks the Icarus moment of government-union power," wrote columnist Charles Krauthammer. "Wax wings melted, there's nowhere to go but down."
Not all are convinced, though. "Wisconsin is not representative of what's happening in the rest of the country," said Terry Moe, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and the author of Special Interests: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools. Although education reformers have gained a few Democratic allies, unions remain a "political juggernaut" positioned to defend job-related interests, he said. One example is in Ohio, where union forces used a referendum last November to overturn Republican curbs on public-sector collective bargaining.
But Tim Farmer, a former NEA member, said "teachers are fed up and frustrated." Though some member losses are due to layoffs, he said, more teachers are becoming exasperated at paying high dues to bloated organizations that offer little in return. Farmer belonged to NEA from 2008 to 2010 while he taught a seventh-grade class in Florida. He paid around $56 a month in dues to four local and national organizational levels.
"I just joined because I wanted liability insurance," said Farmer. (Teachers need the protection in case parents of students sue.) But after he saw the union opposing charters and promoting policies he didn't support, he left teaching and became a recruiter for the Professional Educators Network of Florida, a nonunion teachers association. During six months on the job, the group's membership jumped from 70 to 315. Half of the recruits were former union members.
Today, Farmer is the policy director of the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, another nonunion association that does not bargain collectively, but provides $2 million in liability insurance (twice as much as NEA provides) for $15 a month.
The Colorado organization, with a little less than 1,000 members, is a chapter of the Association of American Educators (AAE) a larger national group. Heather Reams, the group's associate director, said 300,000 teachers are in nonunion associations throughout the country. One of AAE's biggest obstacles is letting teachers know it exists: Unions often try to block its recruiters from making presentations in schools, she said. And when they do get in, they face heckling, snide comments, and hallway confrontations.
Although a contract prevents Lacroix, the Kenosha teacher, from leaving WEAC for another year, she has already joined AAE. She's excited at the prospect of being union-free, and predicts that others will join her and force unions to tone down political activity or become obsolete: "If you're not creating a product that people want, they're not going to join you. They're not going to give you their money."
Ken and Barbara Waldorf of Warren, Mich., are good union folks. A telecommunications fiber splicer for the past 34 years, Ken spends his time climbing poles, ducking in manholes, and faithfully providing for his family. They appreciate the benefits his industry union provides. Surprisingly, though, they currently find themselves at odds with another union in their lives.
That union is the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), of which Barbara is a member for one simple reason: She is the primary caregiver for Ashley, the Waldorfs' 25-year-old special needs daughter.
Ashley-a sweetheart whose days consist of shuffling quietly about their modest bungalow and seeking strokes of affection from her family-is unaware that she is part of an ongoing controversy. Birth trauma and ensuing oxygen deprivation mean that Ashley requires a variety of therapies and special education programs. Even though she technically qualifies for one more year of school under Michigan state law, the Waldorfs have opted to keep her at home. The quiet environment is soothing for her.
"I can't work," Waldorf states matter-of-factly. "This is my job."
Diaper changes, doctor visits, errands, and phone calls consume much of Waldorf's day-along with whatever else she can squeeze in as she juggles the jobs of mother, United Way volunteer, church ministry leader, and primary caregiver for Ashley. That last role is the crux of a legal question in Michigan.
Because of her role as Ashley's caregiver, the Michigan Quality Community Care Council (MQC3), a subsidiary of the SEIU, classified her as an "employee." She never applied for a job and doesn't receive a paycheck, yet the union deducts "dues" every month from Ashley's state Medicaid check. The union also deducts dues from the paychecks of home healthcare workers, but Waldorf questions how that applies to parents taking care of their children: "The crazy thing is I'm classified as an employee. They take union dues out, but no taxes. How does that work?"
It works like this: In 2005 (under previous Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm) the state allowed the SEIU to classify home healthcare workers as public employees. The union began automatically deducting union dues from the paychecks of approximately 43,000 "home healthcare workers." Their employer was supposedly the MQC3, although many were not even aware they worked for the organization. In addition, many individuals counted as "employees" are people like Ken and Barbara Waldorf-parents taking care of their disabled children.
Caregivers who learned about their classification pushed the state legislature to stop the automatic union deductions. In 2011, the Michigan legislature voted to defund the MQC3, but MQC3 cobbled together a shoestring budget (including a $12,000 donation from the SEIU) to continue operations. In April 2012, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation to stop the practice. In May, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette ordered the payments to stop.
Then the SEIU sued. On June 20, U.S. District Court Judge Nancy G. Edmunds ordered the state to continue deducting the dues because the SEIU and MQC3 are under contract until February 2013. The parties signed a six-month contract extension the same day that Gov. Snyder signed the legislation banning the questionable payments.
Now the SEIU has collected enough signatures to put an innocuous-sounding proposal on the November ballot. Called "Keep Home Care Safe," the ballot initiative does nothing to ensure safe home care. Instead, it embeds into the state constitution the current union scheme.
As the state ponders its next move, the SEIU continues to collect dues from family members who care for their disabled relatives. So far the SEIU has collected more than $30 million under this arrangement.