Pension Concessions Request Puts MPS Union in an Unhappy Place

The Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the union for Milwaukee Public Schools teachers, had two lines of defense against making  concessions as the financial squeeze on MPS tightened.

The first was that, due to langauge in the bill backed by Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators, if the MTEA agreed to any changes in its contract, which goes through June 2013, the entire contract would be wiped out. The second was that the union had already made concessions when it settled in September 2010 and just wasn’t going to make any more. 

The first line of defense stands to be erased in the light of changes made by the legislature’s joint finance committee that would allow the MPS contract to be changed without bringing down the roof.

And the Milwaukee School Board, as described ina Journal Sentinel story,  put the question squarely to the union last week of whether it is going to stick by the second response. The board asked that the union to agree to have teachers pay 5.8% of their salaries toward their pensions. Although that is technically the way the system works now (with MPS paying a matching amount), MPS and many other school districts have paid both shares of the pension payments for many years.

There is no indication I know of that the union is going to budge on this, even in the light of the School Board saying almost 200 teaching jobs could be saved with the expected savings (more than $19 million next year). 

I got a strongly worded e-mail from an elementary school teacher who said teachers had made big concessions already, saving MPS more money than the Walker plan for increased health insurance and pension payments would save. I’m not so sure about that claim, but even if true, the pension cut proposal is a major test of the union and of teachers. 

The teacher wrote, “So essentially he (Walker) just wants to cut as many services to public school children (50% plus poor) and to take more of our salary. . . .  We have already signed a contract where it is not necessary to take that much from our salaries to save more. 

“No art, no gym, no music, no library, no nurse (I have a student who has severe diabetes and has to have his levels drawn 2x a day in school and given insulin as needed), no help running the school – one principal with NO support for 540 students, para professionals cut, no vice-principals anywhere, no math team leaders, no curriculum generalists, no literacy coach.  33 children in my class next year. And oh yeah, computerized tests for 4 YEAR OLDS and older.  4 YEAR OLDS.  Unbelievable.” 

I certainly understand what people, especially teachers, are saying when they look at what the cuts in the state budget mean to the daily life in their schools. It’s a bad climate right now. I also agree that what the board is asking  is a lot. The pension payments would mean more than $2,300 a year for any teacher making more than $40,000 a year.

That said, I’m also deeply concerned about the staff attrition the teacher described at her school and at many other schools. If agreeing to pay the pension share could mitigate that in a significant way, would it be worth doing? What would it mean to students? What would it do to teachers? In most school districts in Wisconsin, teachers are (not very willingly, I grant) going to make that concession, along with bigger contributions to health insurance costs than MPS teachers are going to pay, and, in some cases, along with zero increases in pay. There are pay increases built into the pay scacle in the MPS contract for next year, and a large number of teachers will also get “step” increases for having one more year experience on the salary chart.

Politically, where does it leave the MTEA if it refuses to make concessions that teachers statewide are making? I suspect many (maybe even some teachers elsewhere) will take it as proof that the Milwaukee union and its members place their pay and benefits above their students well-being. As much as the current circumstances are upsetting to many teachers, I kind of doubt that very many other people will see it as a rightful and wise response to what is going on. My guess is Scott Walker will think, if the union turns this down, that it’s proving his point. 

I’m not aware of many teachers who regard this as a good time for the profession. And I can’t think of any evidence to regard the current administration in Madison as friendly to MPS. It’s easy to believe they are looking for MPS to wither. 

What can teachers and the MTEA do to respond to that and to proceed in a way that is best for the students in MPS, as well as best, in the big picture, for themselves? That’s a pretty important question right now.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jay Bullock

    Not all of us think it is wise to refuse additional concessions:

    Blaming layoffs and class sizes on Walker is both honesty and good rhetorical strategy, but practically, it still means layoffs and larger class sizes.

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