MADISON — A long-time Racine Unified teacher and former head of Racine’s teachers union is the new leader of the largest teachers union in the state.
Betsy Kippers on Thursday started a three-year term as president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council teachers union. The Racine Education Association teachers union and many others across Wisconsin are WEAC affiliates.
As president, Kippers said she’ll focus more on those locals and on membership.
She takes over at a time when public unions across the country are rethinking their purpose as new laws and changing public opinion erode their powers.
In Wisconsin, for instance, controversial Act 10 legislation limited most public unions’ collective bargaining to wages only. The law also required most public unions to recertify annually and allowed public employees to opt out of paying union dues.
Those factors, combined with budget cuts that are shrinking school staffs, caused WEAC’s membership to drop about 30 percent, down from about 98,000 people before Act 10.
All the changes mean Kippers’ job will vary greatly from that of her predecessor.
“Anybody assuming a leadership role, particularly in a high-profile public sector union, is facing a few differences,” said John Ahlquist, a labor expert and associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
One such difference “is they can’t really count on broad-based public support the way they used to,” Ahlquist said, explaining Wisconsin’s unions don’t “have the ear of the Legislature” with Republicans in control. Public unions also don’t have as much support from their private sector counterparts, who have seen their own organizations and benefits diminish.
Another key difference, Ahlquist said, is the optional nature of membership and dues.
“When asked to contribute, most people would prefer to have someone else contribute,” he said, which makes retaining members and dollars that much more difficult.
Kippers knows that and said, for her, membership is “absolutely a focus,” which means the local organizations are a focus.
“One of the biggest things I’m looking forward to is putting all our emphasis on organizations at the local level and listening to our membership at the local level as to what is most important to them,” Kippers said, explaining she’ll lead WEAC away from a state focus and toward a local focus that more directly impacts members.
The first part of that process, a reorganization of WEAC’s structure, is already under way, she said.
Kippers, 58, is the first person from Racine to lead WEAC.
She is a Racine Unified physical education teacher — on unpaid leave during her WEAC presidency — specializing in special education students.
Kippers began work with the district in 1977 and became active with the REA in the 1980s, chairing committees and eventually serving as treasurer, vice president and president.
As an REA leader, Kippers negotiated contracts that mandated lower class sizes and limited the number of special education students in each classroom so all kids could get adequate teacher attention, said current REA President Jennifer Levie.
“She’s a solid leader, very well-spoken and a real advocate for our students and for educators,” Levie said.
Kippers also helped form a collaborative group of union leaders, district officials and community members that created Unified’s current North Star vision to have all students graduate ready for college or a career by meeting set benchmarks on the way to their diplomas, Kippers said.
She stepped down as REA president in 2007 because she was elected secretary/treasurer for WEAC. Kippers was then elected WEAC vice president and, now, president, she said.
The Wisconsin State Journal contributed to this report.