MADISON, Wis. — More than 200 school unions in Wisconsin met Friday's deadline to seek recertification, but it's unclear how many others let it pass and gave up the little bargaining powers they had left under Republican Gov. Scott Walker's contentious union rights law.
The law stripped public unions of their ability to negotiate anything except wage increases. It also requires unions without existing contracts to hold so-called recertification elections to determine if they can formally represent their members in salary negotiations.
Friday was the deadline for school employee unions to tell the state they wanted an election, and about 212 met the deadline, according to the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission.
"We're declaring to the world we're still here. We're not going away," said Doug Perry, a fifth-grade teacher at Maple Grove School in Greenfield whose union filed for recertification.
But hundreds may have decided not to try. WERC doesn't track how many local unions exist in Wisconsin, but the state has 425 school districts and each one could potentially have multiple chapters representing teachers and support staff.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teacher's union, is aware of about 300 local chapters operating without a contract. Unions that don't recertify can continue to exist, but they won't have any formal bargaining power.
Council spokeswoman Christina Brey said the unions that chose to hold elections wanted to preserve their identity, but that cost, confusion and the compressed time frame to seek recertification likely deterred or prevented others from doing the same. The law took effect in March.
"Either way, they all remain unions and all will continue their advocacy in local schools and communities," she said.
The law makes achieving recertification difficult with little formal benefit. Fifty-one percent of a union's eligible voters – not just voting members – must approve, and unions are required to pay state fees of up to $2,000 to hold elections. Even if a union hurdles those obstacles, recertification means only that the chapter can formally negotiate wage increases, which the law limits to the cost-of-living.
Unions representing about 50,000 public workers opted not to go through with recertification last month, citing the fees and lack of bargaining power even if they succeeded.
The governor's collective bargaining changes have proven to be among the most divisive proposals the state has ever seen. Walker said the changes were necessary to help fill the state's $3 billion deficit and give local governments the ability to absorb deep cuts in state aid.
Democrats, however, maintained the move wasn't about money but about weakening unions, who are among Democrats' staunchest campaign supporters.
Senate Democrats fled the state earlier this year in a futile attempt to block a vote on the legislation and thousands of people converged on the state Capitol to protest against the bill for 24 hours a day for three weeks straight. Walker signed the plan into law anyway in March.
Paul Secunda, a Marquette University labor law professor, said it's difficult to draw conclusions from the number of school unions that chose to go through the recertification process without knowing how many exist. Still, he said he was surprised more than 200 did.
Going through annual elections may seem natural for school employees, who operate on a yearly basis, and for many employees solidarity is important, he said.
"They want to make clear unionism is important to them, so much so they'll go through these inconvenient processes to continue to have a certified union," Secunda said.Walker spokesman Cullen Werwie declined to comment.