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WEAC History Book Chp 2

The teachers' strike in Kettle Moraine was one of more than 50 throughout the state during a 10-year period starting in the late 1960s.

Stories about the 1959 Wisconsin Collective Bargaining Law and how it passed are apocryphal and difficult to verify. Many say Wisconsin’s teachers gained their collective bargaining rights rather accidentally, as conservative lawmakers who opposed collective bargaining rights for public employees added teachers to the bill thinking that would convince moderates to vote against it. To the conservatives’ chagrin, the bill passed anyway, and apparently did so without the support or even the real notice of the Wisconsin Education Association.

What is not in dispute is that the 1959 law was the first collective bargaining law for public employees in the United States, and the first law of any kind that granted teachers anywhere the right to organize into unions.

The law lay dormant for a few years, as it was ignored by the administrator-dominated WEA and not well understood by most local teachers’ associations. When courts ruled that the law was constitutional and did, indeed, apply to teachers, isolated pockets of organizing activity started to take place throughout the state.

In February 1964, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA) became the first certified teachers’ bargaining agent. Other locals followed suit, and in a short period of time there were several instances of WEA-member teachers and WEA-member administrators sitting across the table in contentious bargaining negotiations. The first WEA-local teachers strike took place in 1969 in Ashwaubenon, when 83 teachers engaged in a four-day walkout.

The Municipal Employment Relations Act (MERA) was amended in 1971 in four significant ways. First, the amendment made it a requirement for districts to bargain with teachers, rather than simply allowing collective bargaining. Second, binding arbitration was included as a means for settling stalemates. The third amendment stipulated that the obligation to bargain did not expire once the school board offered a contract, but continued until the contract was signed. Previously, school board members would stop bargaining in good faith after making their first contract offer.

Early activists and organizers turned WEA into the Wisconsin Education Association Council...[which] would represent teachers in contract negotiations and could legally collect and contribute money to political candidates.

Finally, the MERA amendments of 1971 made Fair Share an item that could be bargained in local contracts. This made it possible for teachers to be included in their school districts’ bargaining units on the day they were hired, rather than being required to sign up to have the union represent them.

Another, mostly symbolic, change to MERA in 1971 established that supervisors would not be allowed membership in WEA as of January 1, 1974, making official what had already been happening for several years. By the time the law passed, most principals and other supervisors had already left WEA.

Amid the tumult over civil rights laws and the war in Vietnam, and the hope and promise of MERA, WEA was also changing from the inside. WEA field organizers and active members of local associations understood the value of collective bargaining and collective action and saw the limitations of an organization that did not support political action and accepted members from both sides of collective bargaining disputes. Wisconsin was part of the “first wave” of state teacher associations that reorganized to become state teachers’ unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other states in that first wave included Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York.