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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/25/2011

Open letter to residents of Wisconsin

By Valerie Strauss

This is an email written by a Wisconsin native and former school administrator to residents of her home state about the labor protests now rocking Madison over Gov. Scott Walker's effort to take away collective bargaining rights of labor unions. The author is Jo Koebert. It was first posted by a Washington D.C. area teacher, Kenneth Bernstein, who wrote a piece on the plight of teachers and unions at CNN.

From Jo Koebert:
I am a Wisconsin resident who was born and raised in Milwaukee. I come from a working class family, and although I am lucky enough to spend some of the winter in Arizona, I am deeply connected to my Wisconsin roots. As I watch what is going on in Madison right now, I think about what unions have meant to our family.

My father had no skills other than the willingness to work hard, but he made a living wage because of the automobile union. He didn’t get rich, but he was able to provide for us, buy a simple house and own a car. My uncle worked in a unionized factory, again with no specific skills, yet he had a steady paycheck and enough sense to invest and leave his wife a comfortable inheritance. Another uncle also worked in a factory under safe conditions thanks to the union. We became middle class because of unions and, of course, our willingness to get up in the morning and go to work. Several in our family worked for a time in a Milwaukee forge plant, where men worked hard, got filthy cleaning furnaces, but took home a living wage thanks to the unions.

When I was at the central office of Milwaukee Public Schools as an administrator and the teachers were on strike, I remember complaining about the power of the union because it was making our jobs harder.

I also remember one of the decision makers candidly saying, “Jo, if they didn’t have a union do you know how we would screw them over?” The unions have been responsible for forming the middle class in this country, and our family has been the recipient of the fruits of their labor in negotiating contracts. Yes, there were times when they became too strong and the workers were as much at their mercy as they would have been from the company itself. Today, they no longer have that kind of power, but they do still give the little guy a voice. They are, in fact, the single most active political voice actually working on behalf of working and middle class Americans.

I realize that much of this has been forgotten by many people who are clamoring for the destruction of the unions. Maybe, as educators and as parents, we didn’t do our job well in helping our kids to understand the history of labor in this country. Maybe I needed to tell the stories my dad used to tell about what it was like during the fight to unionize when the National Guard was made to fire upon common men who were demanding to organize.

In Madison, the excuse for these proposed policy measures is about saving money, but it seems obvious to me that this is not true. When the unions made clear that they were willing to concede the salary and benefit reductions the governor is proposing, so long as they get to keep their collective bargaining rights—the lifeblood of union power—Governor Walker refused to negotiate. The true agenda is to get rid of the unions, which will eventually get rid of the middle class and the little power that those who are not in the corporate elite have at this time. I won’t be around to see it, but our young people have got to open their eyes to what is going on in this war against the have-nots, both in Wisconsin and on the national level.

We should not have to fight for PBS and NPR to be saved. We should not have to hear that a proposal to cut all federal funding to Planned Parenthood programs has been introduced. This is serious and the agenda is much more than budget balancing. To my own family and all the others in America who share a similar history: may you never forget your roots. I come from the working class and I am proud of the people I see in Wisconsin fighting for their rights.


Jo Koebert


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By Valerie Strauss  | February 25, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  collective bargaining, gov. scott walker, middle class and unions, teachers, teachers unions, wisconsin, wisconsin protests, wisconsin teachers  
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This is well said and very powerful! Unions are important. They keep challenging us to do more for people. They can be as dangerous as any corporation elite but they must exist to balance power and shape agendas and policy.

The key is how we collectively bargain. A bad agreement should never be a defense for limiting rights.

Posted by: teacher6402 | February 25, 2011 10:34 AM | Report abuse

First off, thanks for your contributions to WI - it would be a different place without them.

You are correct in that we have not taught the history of labor very well in this country. In is not on any of the standardized tests, so it gets "left behind".

It comes to mind about "not remembering the past" and being "doomed to repeat it".

As you point out, it was the unions that had most to do with creating a middle class and, as we see them wane, we also see the waning of the middle class.

It doesn't have to be this way, but we are more swayed by slick advertising jingoism than by critical thought.

Too bad; sooooo sad

Posted by: mberke | February 25, 2011 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Well said, Jo. Thank you for your service to the children of Wisconsin.

Actually what happened in DC to teachers is a perfect example of what will happen nationwide when unions are weakened or dismantled:

Many teachers, especially higher paid veterans, will be dismissed to make way for younger, less expensive people;

Due process will be ignored;

Workers from the working class will be dismissed to make room for the offspring of the affluent;

Workers will be dismissed to make room for associates of management;

Lawsuits will emerge, diverting money away from services for children and other citizens.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | February 25, 2011 11:51 AM | Report abuse

It is not the union, it is their bureaucracy. Unions decided long ago they could get employees a piece of wealth. When that happened they lost me. I am not so naive that I cannot see the circle created by that thought.

There is both guilt by assocation and garrison by association. Neither word serves everyone. Those that understand it least are the students...they are also the one group harmed by both.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 25, 2011 12:29 PM | Report abuse

It's ironic that the root of all this should settle in the lap of the purported national leader of teacher unions, the NEA. Enigmatically, their silence on this issue has been deafening while I'm sure they've been busy in the background orchestrating opposition. Their greed and narcissism is what has teachers in this position currently. Unfortunately I was forced to be a dues paying member to this myopic cult my entire career. How is that a democracy when you are forced to pay for something you don't agree with? Telling me I had to vote for the likes of Carter, Dukakis, Mondale, etc., simply because they're Democrats? Nice guys, maybe but they were buffoons, one and all.

When unions negotiated that teachers pay a mere five percent toward their retirement and twelve percent of their health care SOMEONE will eventually catch on and come looking for them. That's exactly what's happened. Exacerbating these outrages, taxpayers get stuck footing the balance of these perks.

Hey, the economy is in the toilet, unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, credit card debt, etc., are at outrageous levels, and once again oil is pushing $100/barrel. Taxpayers cannot sustain public employee luxuries any longer. The poop has hit the fan.

While I realize these times have not directly been caused by teachers and public employees, teachers are now in the sights of taxpayers and conservatives as identifiable enemies of the public good.

Of course banks, the insurance industry, mortgage companies, state and federal legislators were the real cause of this fiasco but unions (UAW, NEA, etc.) have also been major contributors.

BTW, Governor Walker is an SOB for directly refusing to negotiate with teachers, especially after they conceded on heath care and retirement benefits. I have absolutely no use for that looser and his ilk.

Posted by: paulhoss | February 25, 2011 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Of course banks, the insurance industry, mortgage companies, state and federal legislators were the real cause of this fiasco but unions (UAW, NEA, etc.) have also been major contributors.

Posted by: paulhoss

While I agree with most of your post, I don't understand this part. What, exactly, did teachers, autoworkers and electricians do to destroy the global economy? Unions not only created the American middle class, under threat of death, but they also protected the health and lives of workers and consumers. The wages of working Americans have dropped dramatically over the last 30 year, while all the wealth created by their productivity has been siphoned by the idle rich and the Wall Street Casino. (I remember 0ne day while I was in high school during the 1970’s, my dad, who worked in a heavy manufacturing plant, showed me his paycheck. He had made $1,000 that week with overtime and was amazed that he could earn that much. His usual salary was about $600, but that would work out to about $2,400 ($120,000/yr) today.) Unionized workers have lost a little less than the rest, thanks to their unions. THAT is why the Koch's attack dog in Wisconsin is trying to kill them. That way it will be easier to kill the rest of us. Corporate America has destroyed the American economy and the right wing wants to reward them with more money taken from the workers.

Posted by: mcstowy | February 25, 2011 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Walter Reuther, head of the UAW in the 1950s, negotiated obscene agreements with General Motors, which knew that Ford and Chrysler would soon follow, so all would be competing on a level playing field.

While he wasn't directly responsible for the eventual collapse of the "Big Three" auto makers, he was clearly a contributor. The UAW eventually outdid themselves in the greed department when they negotiated health benefits for their members that added $1500 to the price of every car off the assembly line.

Teachers and municipal workers across America have approached this with their overly generous benefits. Contributing five percent to their retirement packages and twelve percent to their health care plans have essentially broken taxpayers' backs, at least in perception. And don't forget, it is the taxpayer picking up this tab.

Unions for plumbers, electricians, etc., can also be considered greedy, at least mildly. Have you had one these folks do a repair for you lately? Pretty good middle class wage for someone with minimal education.

Posted by: paulhoss | February 25, 2011 4:35 PM | Report abuse

Wow. Another great post from one of Valerie Strauss's aging hippie friends. Keep holding hands and chanting "make it all go away". Then clink your heals three times and you'll be transported back to Woodstock.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 25, 2011 6:33 PM | Report abuse

I am both a conservative republican and a member of a teachers union. That is not an oxymoron. There is little of the Union's political agenda that I agree with but believe it or not, a union's political activities have little or nothing to do with the support they are to teachers in the workplace.

As a Washington State Teacher I pay 29% of my health care costs and 49% of my monthly retirement contribution. It certainly wasn't the increase in health and pension contributions that motivated Wisconsin's teachers to storm the capital.

Unions do a lot more for teachers than bargain for wages and benefits. They protect teachers who are willing to tell the truth about poorly designed reform curricula and practices that are forced on them by administrators championing ever changing fads.

Without the protection of unions, many teachers would be forced to suppress their experience and knowledge and adopt whatever whim some administrator found in the latest book they read over the summer.

Without unions teachers would have no protection when they refused to lower their standards or give passing grades to failing students to make the pass rates look better.

Washington teachers grumbled but kept on doing their jobs when the governor took the $200 million given by the Obama administration to save education jobs and put it in the general fund.

Washington teachers grumbled but kept working when the legislature took away pay raises to teachers that were specifically approved by a majority of the voters.

Washington teachers understand that economic times are tough and they have to share in the burden of these tough times.

But if the governor of this state ever tried to take away their union rights and protections like the governor of Wisconsin is doing, you would be seeing the same scenes at our capital that you are now seeing in Wisconsin.

Posted by: BobDeantalkdotcom | February 25, 2011 9:07 PM | Report abuse

For a Better Wisconsin

EDITORIAL - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Last hired, first fired

Young, enthusiastic teachers are mostly the ones losing jobs in this wave of layoffs. And these are the teachers the district needs and should be fighting for.

That seniority counts when unionized workers face layoffs is nothing new. But especially when it comes to teachers, this longstanding rule needs adjusting.

Of the 482 educators who have received layoff notices from Milwaukee Public Schools, one was named outstanding first-year teacher by the Wisconsin Council of Teachers of English. A second-year social studies teacher has four licenses and is reportedly so skilled that he can keep a large open-concept classroom attentive.

They are young, enthusiastic teachers who can motivate young minds and get results in the classroom. And they are the types of teachers MPS desperately needs to keep.

Job performance is a far better criterion than seniority in determining who goes and who stays. We understand the value of experience, but MPS cannot afford to lose young, innovative teachers. And it needn't happen. The teachers union could save all of these jobs if it would agree to moving its employees into a less-expensive insurance plan.

MPS, like most large, urban districts, is in a financial pickle. But one would think that the union would reason that moving its members into a lower-cost insurance plan that is better than what most people have and will save the district about $48 million is a better alternative than losing young teachers. They don't just represent the district's future but the union's. Saving teachers jobs is worth this sacrifice.

If the School Board fails to get the teachers union to bargain on health care, it would be better off seeking arbitration to resolve the issue. The current contract expired on July 1, and the teachers union has been operating under the terms of the expired contract.

It would be better if no teachers were let go - new or veteran. Classrooms will get larger, and teachers will become more stressed. And over the long term, it surely will become harder with fewer teachers to address the horrid reading scores for fourth- and eighth-graders. But, again, this needn't happen.

The union and the district must come to terms.Young teachers are being shortchanged, but students are the ones who will suffer the most.

Posted by: frankb1 | February 25, 2011 9:39 PM | Report abuse

The title of the website, Dirty Hippies, is somewhat intentional ironic, since the vast majority of participants are far too young to have been hippies. While I am of the age, having been born in 1946 and been in and around Greenwich Village in 1968, afraid that while I am aging I am not and never was a hippy - my service in the Marines probably disqualified me forever.

Interesting that the line of attack is somewhat ad hominem, probably a tacit admission that the content - which are not by me but by Jo Koebert - are not really addressed. And oh by the way, Mrs. Koebert never was a hippy either.

You might try following the link to my piece at for more on why unions matter. And here I note that Michelle Rhee and I had opinion pieces go up there at the same time. As of midday yesterday, hers had been recommended by just over 1,000 people, mine by more than 2,600. Apparently the contents of what I posted there - and in this piece, which is also posted at several other sites - speaks to more people than some responding here want to acknowledge.

Posted by: teacherken | February 26, 2011 1:10 PM | Report abuse

thank you Bob Dean for your comment. It reminds me of a teacher in my building who is further to the right politically than I am to the left who is now an ardent advocate of the union because he wants his basic rights protected.

Posted by: teacherken | February 26, 2011 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Just as the Unions are being blamed for what Wall Street has done to our economy somehow the results of negotiations with the Auto Industry and with government agencies is only attributable to union might. Don't business and government also negotiate and hold responsibility for the results that they agreed to, including the responsibility to actually fund the health and pension funds that they negotiated?
Note that our friends in the UK have a whole different protest going on. They are taking over the Banks to hold their feet to the fire for their part of the mess we are all in. Did you know that Bank of America, GE, Exxon and Wells Fargo paid no taxes last year while awarding their CEOs millions of dollars in salaries and bonuses? How come we are losing our health care and pensions while they pay nothing?

Posted by: kmlisle | February 26, 2011 3:03 PM | Report abuse

Do not forget that there is a rally today (Sunday, Feb 27th) to support the teachers of Wisconsin at 11AM in DC (on PA Ave near the Marriott)!

Posted by: teachermd | February 27, 2011 9:37 AM | Report abuse

Here is an article well worth the read... here we are being put in a defensive position such that Wisconsin teachers are making many concessions which include paying a lot more money into their pensions while the govt is adding union busting into the fray. The link below is a great piece which explains the horrific irony of this situation. Once again a friend forwarded me this link: Really Bad Reporting in Wisconsin: Who 'Contributes' to Public Workers' Pensions?

Posted by: teachermd | February 27, 2011 3:25 PM | Report abuse

A teacher once told me "Unions are good and unions are bad, but I would never want to live in a country without them."

I have lived to see this is the truth.

Posted by: jlp19 | February 27, 2011 5:24 PM | Report abuse

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