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With Declining Membership, Wisconsin Teachers Unions Consider Merger

The the corporate world, mergers are generally considered a sign of confidence, as companies seek to expand their operations. Within organized labor, by contrast, they're often a sign of weakness. The latter is certainly the case with two Wisconsin teachers unions currently considering a merger.

The two unions -- the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA), and AFT-Wisconsin, affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers -- have experienced steep declines in membership since the enactment of Act 10, the 2011 budget repair bill that brought union militants out in droves to Madison, the state capital, in opposition. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports:

After Act 10, WEAC has lost about a third of its approximately 98,000 members and AFT-Wisconsin is down to about 6,500 members from its peak of approximately 16,000, leaders of both organizations have reported.

This episode illustrates three important points.

One is the extent to which unions rely on compulsory labor market policies to boost their membership numbers.

The second is the growing importance of mergers as a union survival tactic. In the private sector, this has led to some odd couplings, such as the merger that created UNITE-HERE, which combined a hospitality service union with a textile industrial one, and split acrimoniously.

The WEAC-AFT Wisconsin merger (which would result in a new grouping called WI Together) would bring together two similar unions with the same political mission -- including opposing education reforms that increase parental choice and make ineffective teachers easier to dismiss.

So, while teachers unions' loss of political clout is good news for parents and education reformers, that clout isn't about to disappear.

As for the third point, it's further illustrated in the growth of a different kind of organization. The Journal Sentinel notes:

Meanwhile, a nonunion group called the Association of American Educators is making inroads in the state.

The organization, based in Mission Viejo, Calif., rejects what it calls "forced unionism," or the practice of forcing dues from teachers' paychecks, which was commonplace in Wisconsin before the passage of Act 10.

Instead it focuses on professional development and offers teachers benefits such as liability insurance and access to legal counsel.

With a fledgling 150 members before the legislation passed, the Wisconsin branch of the organization is on pace to reach 1,000 members by the end of 2013-'14, spokeswoman Alexandra Freeze said.

Thus, choice is good not only for workers, but for organizations that value that choice.

For more on public sector unions, see here.