A Letter to Non-Union Teachers in Wisconsin

By: Hallie Schmeling

Dear Non-Union Teachers in Wisconsin,

Let me start by introducing myself. I’m Hallie, a 27-year old, fifth year teacher in South Milwaukee, WI. I am certified to teach math, special education, and alternative education.  I currently teach in a unique program that is dedicated to meeting the social/emotional needs of students who have been disengaged in school in order to make progress with academic goals.  My classroom experience allows me to utilize and continue to develop my professional training for students with intensive needs.  Like many of you, I love the work that I do, but I am also very concerned about the world of education outside of my classroom.

I began teaching in 2010 which, coincidentally, is when sh*t hit the fan for public workers/educators in Wisconsin. Our governor (like so many other politicians in the United States) was able to pass Act 10, a law that stifled the voices of teachers and advocates for public education through the elimination of collective bargaining rights. This was a confusing time for me. I had just started teaching and was excited about the work I was doing. But outside of school, my family, friends, neighbors, and media expressed that they felt unions were to blame for the ‘failure’ of our public schools.  Their thoughts did not match with what I was learning about public schools through my direct experience.

At work, I was inspired by the intelligent, dedicated, and hardworking staff who quickly sprung into action to inform others about the potentially disastrous effects of Act 10.  I wanted to learn more from them. To me, these were real educators – down to fight the battle to bring professionalism back to teaching, at the front lines to advocate for what is best for students, all with a deep understanding of social justice and the many different challenges our students face in their everyday lives. The teachers were part of their professional organization, a.k.a. the union. Among them, I was so proud to be a teacher! This feeling was in direct contrast to how I felt outside the classroom walls. I never wanted to share what my profession was with others.  I was too worried I’d hear the word, “mooch,” “union thug,” “freeloader,” or become defensive and get into a hate-filled political battle. I still have a hard time understanding how the views were so far apart and how insensitive people were to me. I was a new teacher.

I was disheartened when I learned that there were people within the profession who also held negative beliefs or spoke inaccurately about teachers and unionism.  I have had countless conversations with non-members who say that they will not join the union. Frankly, the reasons and rationale I have heard really scare me. If teachers don’t understand what’s going on in education, how can we expect parents, community members, or even administrators to understand?  How can we expect more support and resources for our students and schools?  Can any of us alone accomplish these large tasks?

I hear four very common responses to why people choose not to be a part of their professional organization:

  1. Due to Act 10, there is no longer a union in our district (I know teachers in many districts!)
  2. I don’t know why we have a union – it’s the 21st century
  3. I have a good administrator, so I’ll be fine
  4. I can’t afford it.

You say, “my school doesn’t have a union.” Who do you think the union is? Some outside agency or outside group of people not involved in education? The union is YOU. The definition of a union is: “an organization of workers formed to protect the rights and interests of its members” and “an act of joining two or more things together.” This means, as a union member, you join with other people to help advocate and preserve our profession and what’s best for the students we teach. This cannot be limited to the small group of people who dedicate themselves to union leadership; it requires everyone involved in education!

You say, “I don’t know why we need unions now-a-days.” Why have unions? Unions protect us from arbitrary exercise of power. Why do you think thousands of people protested in Madison, WI at the Capitol in 2010 and it drew national attention? Why did teachers drive for hours to Madison after the school day in the cold and snow for weeks on end?  Why were people so upset by our governor and his proposed budgets? What was it all for?  Unions advocate for workers, and teachers advocate for students. To put it simply: a union is a human resources department paid for by the employees. Therefore it only makes sense to be part of an organization filled with people that are just like you to help decide what your hours, compensation, benefits, evaluations and general work conditions will be like. In addition, a union helps educate our administration, human resources, and school boards about what’s best for the growth and development of the children we teach.

You say, “I have a good administrator, so I’ll be good.” The average tenure for school administrators is five years, your current principal will more than likely not always be there. Through unions, not administrators, we have the ability to speak up about the injustices and inequities within our schools. The “tools” suggested by our governor to improve education are grossly inappropriate and damaging to children and have led to limited professional development for teachers, the draining of funds from public schools to unaccountable charter and voucher schools, less emphasis on social/emotional education and more time on literacy, and an ever increasing use of standardized testing.

I was one of the protestors at the Capitol in 2010. The people speaking up about how awful these new laws would be included teachers, parents, children, and supporters. While I am sure there were administrators present, none of my administrators ever indicated that they were there. I found it incredibly odd that the world of education was rocking on the outside, but it was never mentioned by our administrators on the inside. In our darkest days, I did not see or feel their support.  It was teachers.

And last but not least, you say “I don’t have the money to pay for union dues.” When so much is at stake for students, staff, and schools, you can’t afford not to be apart of your professional organization. It’s the one and only body of people that have stood up for public education.

When talking to people who are not part of the union it’s just so hard for me to listen to their logic. It’s so difficult for me because I am an activist and truly view being a part of my union as an important piece of me becoming the best public educator I can be.  The union has educated me about the policies that impact my work with students. The union has helped me find my voice. I am no longer worried about stating that I am a teacher and a union member.  When I say I am part of the union, I know I am standing alongside people that advocate for children, are highly educated, compassionate, and work for the collective good.

I am more a professional because I am part of the union.

In Unity,

Hallie Schmeling

Some websites of inspiration…


About the Author:
Hallie Bio
Hallie Schmeling is a fifth year teacher and certified in math, special education and alternative education. She is active in her professional organization and attributes it to her grandfather who was the head of his town’s union in the 1960’s (it’s in her genes). Most importantly, she is a new mother to her daughter, Charlie.

17 thoughts on “A Letter to Non-Union Teachers in Wisconsin

  1. After attending the NPE conference in Chicago this weekend, your words are even more meaningful. Our national union leaders, reputable scholars, and education activists agree…through union we best serve our students and schools. We are many, they are few!


  2. Reblogged this on Naked Teaching and commented:
    And where would child labor laws, workplace safety and many other safeguards be today if union members hadn’t fought for humane working conditions early int he last century. I we don’t stick up for our rights, they will be taken away.


  3. Excellent blog. Thank you for your passion in teaching our children. I value all the teachers out there, we need you and appreciate all you do. Thank you again


  4. Unions have done a lot for America and have been instrumental in getting to where we are today. However, since their beginning Unions have always been about freedom to join a union or not. In the beginning it was such a risk to join that you were not expected to join, later on it became less and less well respected to not participate but there was still a choice. Walker’s legislation brought that choice back and although you may disagree with teachers decision to not be a part of a union, you must be open-minded and tolerant to their choice.


    • Actually, non-union members leach off of the bargaining work of their union colleagues, so, you do not have to respect that attitude.


    • If you really believe that then you do not understand either unions or the union-busting intent of Gov. Walker. That’s the real basis of his legislation. Republican governing bodies are hot on getting rid of unions, as most unions support their opposition, the Democratic party. Funny how that works, isn’t it?
      Take away the basic concept of union dues, which support the operating expenses of the union, and you effectively gut the union of any ability to represent its members. Allowing teachers, or any employees of a union-represented business, school, or company, to reap the benefits of the work the union does without contributing, thru dues, to the operating costs and you have started the process that will eventually kill the union. Add to that enough false information about how unions are nothing but protection for incompetent and lazy employees, spread it thick enough to the media, and you start to have people actually believing that unions are the root of all evil.
      Horse Puckey.
      The evil is the Koch-funded politicians like Walker and others who want to do away with any voice that the workers have, and they’re slowly doing it, unless people wake up to the horse manure they’re being fed.


  5. You are an amazing voice for young teachers facing countless challenges in the world of education today. I applaud your courage, leadership and commitment to making things better for your profession, and most importantly, for the students you serve. Thank you for remaining strong and educating those around you.


  6. As a retired educator and past union leader, I was excited to read the words of this young teacher. Hallie eloquently defined the importance of belong to a union.


  7. So now people have the option to join the Union, sounds great from the outside (by the way, public employees have received the choice to join the Union as of 6/30/11 with the passage of Act 10 and now private Unions have suffered the same fate with the “Right to pay people less” law that was passed). However, even if one chooses not to join their Union and not pay dues, they are still eligible for all the advantages of being in the Union. It is not free to advocate for Union members. It takes resources that come from the rank and file members. Therefore, those who choose not to join the Union get all the advantages of being a paying member yet pay nothing for these services…in my book that is simply freeloading and it is not fair to those who have paid their dues. My prediction is that cgtown is not and probably never was a Union member and therefore is relying on misinformation that receiving from some media outlet. Look no further than average median wages in Right to Work States compared to Closed Shop States; more that $5,000 less per year for all employees, Union or non-union. The fact is that Union employees increase wages for all since other sectors of the economy need to compete for the best people who are being lured by Union jobs. Further, when employees get paid more (and this pay includes benefits too) their supervisors, middle management, need to be paid more to compete with the line employees. In this way Unions built the middle class in this country and the world too. Who would you rather have a more powerful voice, workers who have a common voice in bargaining or the billionaire class who dictate to the workers how things will be?


  8. Excellent blog. For teaching to be a true profession it has to be independent. Teachers have to be able to fulfill the role of protector for students; who else knows your students as well as you do? Who else really knows what they need? Your union is your professional organization that allows you the independence to do your work of educating and so you need to belong. Unfortunately, in Wisconsin at this time, you are the ones who need to fight for rights for both yourselves and students. This governor does not value any education. Through your organization you have to show that you are a professional and are above the politics; you are committed to work towards an excellent education for all students. This political time will not last forever but irreparable damage is being done. Finally signs of disagreement with our politicians are popping up all around us. Eventually people will see that you, the teachers have been right all along. There is not always a thank you at the end of each day but keep your head up high and keep demonstrating to all that you have the best possible end goal; that of education our children. Barb D


  9. Thank you Hallie for this well-written perspective. Sadly, many people including new teachers just don’t get it. They are so short sighted and only think of things from their personal point if view rather than seeing the bigger picture.
    Both of my parents taught in SM for over 30 yrs each and my father was around when teacher unions were formed in late 50’s/early 60’s. He attended many meetings and was also an outspoken activist when times called for it. So it was heartbreaking for me to see one arrogant politician just erase all their hard work with one meanspirited bill of Act 10.
    Now I work as a teacher assistant in NC. My teaching starting salary in Nc 2012 was identical to WI starting teaching salary 13 years earlier. But there are no unions here for teachers, not sure if there ever were any. We had many snow days in Feb and assistants cannot come to school when there are no students – we won’t get paid and were told to stay home. 4 days. Then they looked at calendar and decided kids won’t need to make those up. But even tho we were told to stay home, now we have to make up 40 h
    rs or we won’t get paid. But we simply followed their instructions. Doi go in an hour early every day hoping my last check isn’t reduced missing money I was expecting. That’s where a union comes. In handy. Pardon my language, but this kind of B@?$” just wouldn’t fly. Employees deserve to be treated fairly and respectfully and this is a piss poor example of how to do that.

    Thank you for restoring my faith in good teachers, young teachers that actually understand the historical significance of unions and are fighting hard for our kids!


  10. I’m not a teacher, nor do I belong too a union. I have never belonged to a union. With that having been said I am very vested in what has happened to our educational system as well as the rights of all workers, children and the elderly. Walker is killing or once proud state. At one time if you were to go to either coast and apply for a job, your Chances of getting that job were greater because you were from Wisconsin. Why, because people from Wisconsin were known for their work ethic and good education. Those that believe Walker did us a favor are sorely wrong. He claims he has freed us to better ourselves and increase our ability to advance in our jobs. The only thing he did was give large corporations the ability to discriminate and pay lower wages. Yes, unions did and still do serve a very important purpose.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: A Letter to Non-Union Teachers in Wisconsin | San Diego Educators United

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