Wisconsin’s union recertification requirement represents true workplace democracy

Since Wisconsin’s passage of Act 10 in 2011, the state has often been made into the “boogeyman” by Education Minnesota.

“The teachers’ union always warns us that we ‘don’t want to become like Wisconsin,’” shared a Minnesota teacher during one of Educated Teachers’ focus groups. “We are made to believe that educators have it so terrible across the border.”

But do they?

One of Act 10’s provisions, annual union recertification elections, gives teachers the right to vote for their representation in the upcoming collective bargaining for the school year. If teachers are not satisfied with the union, they can assess their exclusive representative relationship through a secret-ballot recertification election. Educators have a greater voice in the future of their union, and it creates greater accountability for unions. Unions cannot take members and their money for granted.

Minnesota teachers do not have this same opportunity.

Despite Education Minnesota’s stated “commitment” to “workplace democracy” as one of its core, institutional objectives, teachers have not had the opportunity to vote for, or against, union representation in many generations. According to its constitution, “Education Minnesota shall be committed to democracy in the workplace and within the organization.”

As for democracy within the union organization, teachers who belong to the union are eligible to vote on the contract negotiated by the union with their employer; members also get to vote on local union representation, which in turn leads to representation at union conventions. But workplace democracy turns out to be a very limited idea. Teachers in the workplace today have not voted on whether the union, which has the exclusive power to represent all teachers including non-members, has represented them well.

The Center analyzed voting data from secret-ballot certification elections for unions’ exclusive representation rights that is collected by the Bureau of Mediation Services (BMS), a state agency established in 1969. As of September 2018 data, out of the 330 school districts currently in existence, BMS has a record of a certified teachers’ union at 318 schools. But not all teachers in these districts were given the opportunity to vote for their union when it was certified, or subsequent to certification.

From 1957 to 2017, only 58 out of the 318 school districts on record at BMS held a secret-ballot certification election for exclusive union representation of teachers. That is only 18 percent over a 60-year period. Furthermore, most of those elections occurred during the 1970s. Only five teachers have voted in a certification election across all school districts from 2000-2017, according to available teachers’ union data from BMS. Given that most of the teachers’ local unions were recognized in the 1970s either by grandfathering, joint request, or voluntary recognition, and a smaller number by actual certification elections, it is fair to conclude that, aside from the five votes in 2000, the percentage of teachers in the classroom today who voted for (or against) the current union representation is nearly zero.

Union recertification in Minnesota would give educators the opportunity to evaluate the union and decide whether it is best meeting their needs. Wouldn’t this result in better service for teachers?