The state’s two major teacher unions, the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, are considering plans to combine their organizations in a merger more than two years in the making.
The new organization will be known as Wisconsin Together and will work to represent public teachers at all levels of education as well as provide services to its members and promote innovation, the proposed constitution of the organization said.
While formal conversations for the merger began more than a year ago, informal discussions started in 2011, WEAC spokesperson Christina Brey said. The membership will decide on the merger on April 26 in Green Bay, and Brey said the organizations could operate jointly by Sept. 1 of this year.
“There are a lot of similarities between the organizations and over the years we’ve come to work closely on many issues,” Brey said.
WEAC and AFT-Wisconsin have had an interaction agreement since 1991, and they have worked on joint projects in collaboration with the Department of Public Instruction, AFT-Wisconsin spokesperson Kim Kohlhaas said.
Brey said the main idea of the merger is to create a unified public voice to represent public school teachers and communities in the state.
“Unions aren’t going anywhere,” Brey said. “We may have to do things differently, but we are still here and we are still the largest voice for public educators in the state.”
Kohlhaas said the union members would benefit from the combined efforts, strengthening the services the unions provide and the advocacy work they do.
Both organizations provide professional development, the ability to interact with the Department of Public Instruction and legislators as well as a voice in the workplace for efficiency and high quality performance.
“The merger will give us a unified voice to allow us to advocate to make sure that the services we provide in the state of Wisconsin are maintained,” Kohlhaas said.
Teachers unions have lost membership and funding since the implementation of the 2011 collective bargaining law that restricted the ability of unions to bargain on most employment conditions.
The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the law in November, in an ongoing series of legal challenges to the law. While awaiting a final decision from the courts, unions will work to strengthen themselves as a voice for public teachers, WEAC President Betsy Kippers said in a statement.
“The effort by the state to justify breaking collective associations goes against the law and Wisconsin values,” Kippers said.“We are union strong and we are union always. No law or legal ruling can change our ability to be a collective voice for students, educators and public schools.”
Brey said she emphasized that this merger is not simply about membership numbers. She said talks on the merger began long before the implementation of the collective bargaining law.
The unions are trying to find a new way to collective bargain under the restrictions of the law, and Brey said she still believes unions are the best way for public school teachers and parents to cooperate in advocating for students.
Kohlhaas also said adapting is key.
“Organizations like ours are looking for a new way of doing things,” Kohlhaas said. “The entire landscape of education is changing.”