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Wisconsin’s Professors Unionize in Defiance of Walker’s Law

Lisa Theo cast her vote yesterday to join a union that may not be able to negotiate a contract for her and said, “That felt good.”

Theo, 51, a geography instructor, and her University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point colleagues voted in a two-day election to be represented by AFT-Wisconsin after the passage of a law championed by Republican Governor Scott Walker that would eliminate collective bargaining for faculty members.

It was the fourth state campus to vote in favor of representation since Walker introduced the bill Feb. 11, saying it is necessary to mend the recession-battered budget. The measure, which has been challenged in court, touched off weeks of protests. Professors say Republicans are using the budget crisis to attack education with the union bill, by proposing funding cuts and by seeking e-mails sent by a UW-Madison professor who wrote a blog posting and a New York Times opinion piece opposing Walker.

“We’re going to stand up for our rights, and we’re going to keep fighting until we get them,” Theo said in an interview.

The Stevens Point faculty voted 283-15 for the union, said Jennifer Collins, an assistant professor of political science and member of the committee advocating the federation.

“We’re thrilled,” she said in a telephone interview today. “It’s a strong message to Governor Walker rejecting what he’s doing.”

Picking Up Speed

The previous decisions in favor of union representation were Feb. 24 at UW-La Crosse, March 9 at UW-Stout and March 24 at UW-River Falls, AFT-Wisconsin said in press releases. The winning margins ranged from 86 percent to 90 percent, according to the union, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. The federation has 17,000 members statewide.

Faculty at UW campuses in Eau Claire and Superior also voted to join AFT-Wisconsin last year after the Legislature extended collective bargaining to faculty and academic staff in June 2009, the union said.

The new law, which would limit collective bargaining for most government workers, would end it completely for university faculty.

In Stevens Point, 110 miles (177 kilometers) north of state capital Madison, work toward unionization began almost a year ago. It gained momentum after Walker signed the law this month, said Eric Yonke, 48, a history professor and organizing committee member.

Standing Ready

The law limits most public employees to bargaining for wages alone; raises can’t exceed inflation unless voters agree. The measure requires increased contributions for health-care coverage and pensions.

In Stevens Point, some faculty members saw their votes as symbolic support for collective bargaining, Yonke, a professor for 20 years, said in an interview. Others wanted the union in place if the law is overturned, he said.

State Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi in Madison today affirmed that the law isn’t in effect as a suit over whether it was lawfully created proceeds. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne sued to invalidate the measure, arguing that lawmakers who approved it violated the state open-meetings law.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin Democrats are seeking to recall eight Republican senators.

Speaking as One

The union would give the faculty “a unified voice” on issues including tenure, Todd Huspeni, an assistant professor of zoology, said in an interview.

Walker’s office issued a statement in response to the union vote saying the governor “is focused on balancing Wisconsin’s multibillion budget deficit and ensuring our state has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs by 2015.”

Collins, the politics professor, said Walker “has been a tremendous union organizer.”

“People feel like this is one way we can stand up and express our opposition to the direction the governor is taking in the state,” she said in an interview.

That opposition extends to a public-records request by the Wisconsin Republican Party for e-mails sent by William Cronon, a history professor at UW-Madison, she said. The party wants messages that mention Walker and a variety of other Republican politicians, as well as state employee unions.

‘Chilling Effect’

Cronon has been critical of Walker and Republicans on his blog and in a March 21 opinion article in the New York Times, saying Walker “has provoked a level of divisiveness and bitter partisan hostility the likes of which have not been seen in this state since at least the Vietnam War.”

Cronon didn’t respond to two telephone messages and an e-mail seeking comment.

William P. Jones, an associate professor at UW-Madison who studies labor history and government unions, said the request “was pretty clearly a response to things that Bill had written” in an effort to intimidate him.

“It can have a chilling effect on other faculty members,” Jones said in a telephone interview.

The Wisconsin Republican Party doesn’t need to explain its request, its executive director, Mark Jefferson, said in a statement.

“Taxpayers have a right to accountable government and a right to know if public officials are conducting themselves in an ethical manner,” Jefferson said.

AFT-Wisconsin will continue its work on more campuses, said Bryan Kennedy, the state union’s president.

“I don’t see the organizing stopping,” Kennedy said in a March 29 interview in his Madison office. The state is “going to have pry collective-bargaining rights from our cold, dead hands.”

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