A conference of the nation’s educators winds down in Minneapolis on Thursday with few more ready to take on an anti-union tide than a battle-hardened group from Wisconsin.
The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association has withstood membership losses that followed Gov. Scott Walker’s limiting of collective bargaining rights statewide, and it has racked up victories by rallying parents and community members behind its pursuits.
The partnerships have been aided by the union’s focus on social-justice work — efforts that also won the association a human and civil rights award at the National Education Association conference that drew thousands to the Minneapolis Convention Center this week.
“A criticism of our union in the past is that we were not in sufficient authentic relationships with parents and community,” Amy Mizialko, the Milwaukee union’s vice president, said in an interview Wednesday. “None of us will make it through these times alone.”
Last week, when the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to unions by saying public employees did not have to pay mandatory union fees — a ruling evoking memories of Walker’s “Act 10” law of 2011 — Mizialko joined the immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera at a downtown Milwaukee rally protesting President Donald Trump’s visit to the area that same day.
Two days later, while in Minneapolis, she and other educators from across the country marched across downtown with Twin Cities area residents as part of a protest decrying aspects of current U.S. immigration policies.
“I was just so glad to be with my national union and with this community,” Mizialko said. “It was exciting to see the families and children there — children learning at an early age their responsibility to take civic action. Because when one of us is unsafe, all of us are unsafe.”
This spring, teachers from largely Republican-led states walked out of their schools to protest what they called inadequate funding of public education, and many came away with pay increases. Mizialko similarly and publicly called upon her members in April to “search your conscience” to see what type of “bold action” they would take to fight proposed district budget cuts that included trimming per-pupil spending for schools by 5 percent.
In a piece for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Alan J. Borsuk, a senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School, wrote that Mizialko’s call for action was a “dicey proposition.” The district, he wrote, faces declining enrollment and issues relating to student achievement, money, staff morale, leadership and the competition for hiring and retaining teachers.
He wondered, too, if the union could lose influence if it were to come out of the “current turbulence” without enough changes to the budget.
Later that month, a new interim superintendent reversed the cuts to schools as well as proposed changes to health benefits. Teachers also secured a tentative agreement for a 2.13 percent cost-of-living increase, Mizialko said.
“Those are our biggest set of wins since Act 10,” she said. “This is the most hopeful I’ve been in seven-and-a-half years.”
She takes over as president of the union on Friday, and she cites the St. Paul Federation of Teachers as an inspiration.
Nick Faber, the St. Paul federation’s president, said that the setback dealt by Walker has in some ways made the Milwaukee union stronger. Like St. Paul, he said, Milwaukee has rallied around social-justice issues and is a solid group ready to fight.
Teachers’ unions elsewhere now face potential hits to revenue and influence after last week’s Supreme Court ruling. The fear is real, and weariness is too, Mizialko said. But people need to “hold together and stay together,” because they still can be powerful, she said.
She then began to choke up.
“I always say to people, ‘Your students are never going to pull you aside and say please join your union and advocate for me,’ ” she said. “But they count on us to do that. We can’t do very much alone. What we can do in alliance with our students and families is pretty limitless.
“We’re not quitting on our profession, and we’re not quitting on our students.”