In 1974, the population of Hortonville, Wisconsin, was around 1,500, and yet it became the site of one of the most contentious and consequential teachers’ strikes in the state’s history. In the end, over 80 striking educational staff members in the Hortonville district were fired by an intransigent school board, and the strike itself ripped the community in two. With teachers and their supporters on one side and a virulently anti-union school board, local police, and townspeople opposed to the strike on the other side, things got very ugly in Hortonville, and the legacy of the broken ‘74 strike left a deep scar on the town and the district for many years. Nearly 50 years after the Hortonville strike and 10 years after the passing of Act 10 under Republican Gov. Scott Walker, which was a hammer blow to public sector unions around the state, teachers in Hortonville are facing increased workloads, lower take-home pay, difficulties retaining educational staff, and greater obstacles to union organizing.

As part of a special collaboration with In These Times magazine for The Wisconsin Idea, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez traveled to Wisconsin with Cameron Granadino (TRNN) and Hannah Faris (In These Times) to speak with teachers and organizers around the state about how Act 10 impacted their lives and work, and how they are rebuilding out of the rubble. In this interview, recorded at their home in Hortonville, Alvarez speaks with Amanda and Jeff Frenkel, two K-12 educators and organizers with the American Federation of Teachers who are fighting to rebuild the union in Hortonville and use the tools available to them to improve working conditions in the district.

Pre-Production: Maximillian Alvarez, Hannah Faris, Alice Herman, Cameron Granadino, Eleni Schirmer (research consultant), John Fleissner (research consultant), John Yaggi (research consultant), Harvey J. Kaye (research consultant), Jon Shelton (research consultant), Adam Mertz (research consultant)
Studio: Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, Stephen Frank, Kayla Rivara

The Wisconsin Idea is an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin and In These Times.

CORRECTION 12/6/21: Amanda Frenkel is identified in this video as “High School Teacher & AFT Organizer” but should be identified as “Elementary School Teacher & AFT Organizer.”


Transcript

Maximillian Alvarez:    This is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network and In These Times magazine reporting from Hortonville, Wisconsin, a small rural town with a population just shy of 3,000. In 1974 the population of Hortonville was around 1,500. And yet, it became the site of one of the most contentious and consequential teacher strikes in Wisconsin’s history. Over 80 striking educational staff members were fired by an intransigent school board and the strike itself ripped the community in two. Between teachers and their supporters, local police and townspeople opposed to the strike, things got very ugly here in Hortonville. And the legacy of the broken strike left a deep scar in the community for many years to come. 

Nearly 50 years after the Hortonville teacher’s strike and 10 years after the passing of Act 10 under Republican Governor Scott Walker, which was a hammer blow to public sector unions around the state, teachers here are feeling the squeeze. I got to talk with Amanda and Jeff Frenkel, two K through 12 educators and AFT union organizers here in the Hortonville district, about the struggles they and their coworkers are facing and about the ways they are working together to rebuild.

Amanda Frenkel:    I’m Amanda Frenkel, and I’ve been teaching for 22 years. 20 at Hortonville and two years out of state. And currently I’m teaching Spanish at the elementary level, which is amazing and fun. And I’m also a reading teacher, and I teach that in the afternoons. So I have students grades K through four. And Jeff?

Jeff Frenkel:        I’m Jeff Frenkel. I, same – teaching 22 years, 20 at Hortonville, two out of state. I teach high school math. So I’ve been having a fun time doing that. And I also coach softball, and I’ve coached pretty much most sports.

Amanda Frenkel:    And you’ve been coaching your entire career. He started coaching in college, coaching baseball.

Jeff Frenkel:        – Baseball, and down in Missouri, coached football, coach football here and baseball and softball and basketball. Done it all.

Maximillian Alvarez:    And yeah, I mean, right before we got here for this interview, you were at a game.

Jeff Frenkel:        We were just at a game, we won 3 to 1.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Boom. Nice. So you said you were, y’all were in Missouri before this. So I guess I’m curious if you’ve been teaching here for two decades, what was the path that brought you from Missouri over to Hortonville of all places?

Amanda Frenkel:    Well, actually, after we graduated college we decided, let’s just go have some fun. So we were newly engaged and wanted to go out of state. So we literally seriously just applied to all the warm states and whichever states got back to us first that’s where we taught. And my rule was we need to be teaching in the same area together. So that was a dream of mine, to be in the same area together. And then we decided that when we were ready to settle down and start our family, we would find the perfect town. And so two years later, I was probably ready a little faster than you were, but so we need to go back home because our family’s up here a couple hours away. But Hortonville was the perfect match for us.

Maximillian Alvarez: As a Southern Californian who’s lived in the Midwest, I can’t blame you for wanting to spend some time in a warmer part of the country. And I guess also, did y’all both know from an early stage that you wanted to be teachers? Is that how you two met?

Amanda Frenkel:    Yeah. I always knew I was going to be a teacher. I was helping out in high school at the elementary and did all those kinds of things, and did daycare and babysitting. But when we were in… We went to University of Eau Claire, we met during our teacher education classes.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Give me more of that story. Who put the moves on whom?

Jeff Frenkel:         It was actually one of our friends who hooked us up together.

Amanda Frenkel:     One of our dear friends who teaches in Menominee. We had a class, we had a winter class because we were that studious that we took classes all summer and in the winter, during the winter and January classes. And his friend Chad said, you guys like each other just go out already. I’ve always felt like every day for three weeks in this class together. So finally the last day we went out on a date and that’s history. So he takes all the credit for hooking us up because I don’t know if we would have said much to each other.

Maximillian Alvarez:    That’s cute. You said that you all have family in the northern part of Wisconsin.

Amanda Frenkel:     Yeah, we looked in the Fox Valley. We knew that this area was growing quite a bit. I have a girlfriend that lived in Greenville who I went to high school with so we were best friends. And she said, if you want to come teach, Greenville is happening, it’s growing. It’s getting bigger and bigger. So when it was time to move back we moved back to this area. But we had family within an hour. I really wanted to be closer to family, like one hour away. And he said within a couple hours, so that was our compromise.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Can we talk more about that process? When you said, okay, we’re gonna move back to Wisconsin, you had a friend in Greenville saying this is the happening place. But, I mean, Hrtonville is pretty rural. Right? This is my first time here, and we drove kind of far away from the city to get here. So I guess, could you talk us through what it was like between the two of you as you were looking for where you wanted to plant your roots, start a family, and also become a teacher and build a career in that community?

Amanda Frenkel:    So we came back home, and we applied in the Fox Valley in general, but Hortonville attracted us because it was a big little town. I’m from a very small town, my town was barely 1,000 people growing up, and he was from Merrill, which was bigger –

Jeff Frenkel:        It was about the same size as this.

Amanda Frenkel:     – As this. And so we were attracted by the feel of the community. And then when we applied to all these places in the Fox Valley, then we went out to dinner after all of our interviews and the waitress said, oh, you’re dressed up? What’s the special occasion? Like anniversary, all that stuff. Like, no, we interviewed for teaching positions in the area, and we have offers at these places, and we’re not really sure where we want to take. And she said, oh my gosh, my kids go to Greenville, you’re gonna love it here. Like, Hortonville, your school district is amazing, you’re gonna love it, and we wouldn’t change it for the world. And for me, that kind of sealed the deal.

Jeff Frenkel:          Yeah, I had an offer in another school, but there I would have had a classroom, but during my prep time I would have shared an office. And at my job in Missouri I was a traveling teacher. So my first year teaching I had four different classrooms for six classes. And then my second year teaching I had two classrooms, and I just didn’t have my own room. But in Hortonville, I was guaranteed a room and I had my own room the whole day. So I mean, that really, that was one of the biggest deciding factors of, do I have my own room? Or do I have to share or travel?

Maximillian Alvarez:    So I know – Oh, please.

Amanda Frenkel:    Well, well, because then he was offered that position, because he was teaching math and math teachers are a little bit more in demand than elementary teachers. And so then I said well, if he’s going to teach there, our plan, because we were newly married and wanted to build a family in the community, I wanted to make sure that wherever we stayed that this was a lifestyle choice. Because I was adamant that we were going to raise our family in this community and that we were going to do it together. And we’d have the same teaching schedules, the same calendars. And so I wanted to be hired in the same district. So I told him they could not hire him unless there was something available for me, because we had other options. And then luckily there was a limited term position that got my foot in the door. So that was very helpful. And we’ve been here since 2001.

Maximillian Alvarez:    That’s great. It just makes me think that there’s so many other jobs where that’s not even an option, to see your career in those terms. Because as a teacher, as we were talking about before we started recording, it’s like you were actually seeing generations of the community that you’re in grow up, you’re getting to know them, you’re getting to know their families. Educators are some of the most deeply entrenched workers in any community. And that’s something that, in so many other jobs, you have no attachment to the people. You’d go to an office building, or maybe, when I was a delivery guy, I would meet the regular people who would order pizza. So I got to know them well, but I didn’t really, I wouldn’t say I was a fixture in the community when I was delivering pizzas. And so I wanted to ask by way of talking about how your working life has gone in Hortonville, and maybe how it’s changed over the years, what that community aspect is, what that looks like for a teacher in a place like Hortonville? Could you just talk a little more about what it means to both of you to be part of that community and why it was such an important part for you when you decided to move here?

Amanda Frenkel:    I think for me, I just want to be part of the community because I feel like it takes a village to raise a child and I feel like they’re all our children. So to me that was very important. And I wanted my children to grow up with strong role models, and I was able to get that through neighbors and neighbors who were also teachers in the building who maybe went to the same church as us or their friends at other churches. And like for Jeff I’ve seen that over the years that community that he’s built with his players because like you’ve said before, when you have your players on the field, you have that relationship in the classroom, too. And that carries over, I think that’s huge for teachers. So if kids know that you’re part of the community and you’re invested in them and their parents they’re going to work and do their very, very best for you every single day.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well and I know that, as y’all know, part of why we’re here in Hortonville is to look at the history of the teacher’s strike that happened here in 1974. What that meant to the community and, I know that for folks who are watching this, I would highly encourage you to research that history. But that was always a fundamental tension in that history, was that I think at the time in 1973 and here in Hortonville there was a big split between the more farming community, the people who live more in town, and then the teachers in the school district who, at the time, I think it was around three fourths of them did not live in the district. 

And so there was at the, especially at the time of the strike when those tensions were running high, people were saying, oh, you’re not part of the community, you’re outsiders, so on and so forth. So I know that that is something that is deeply entrenched in the history of Hortonville itself. But yeah, I mean, you’re right. I think about my coaches, my dad was a coach for us. And even today if I go back home I see people I grew up with who ask me about my dad. Or if they see my dad they tell him about what they’re up to and what they’re doing. 

But it really is, yeah, I love the way you put it, Amanda. It takes a village to raise a child. And I don’t know, I guess I wanted to ask what that looks like on a day to day level as you’re teaching. I mean, because you also have to deal with a lot of school children or high schoolers and they’re not always the most pleasant. I say that as one who was not a very pleasant high schooler. So can we talk a little bit about from the time that y’all got here 20 years ago maybe to now, what your work in the Hortonville school district looks like? What’s a typical week been for you? Like, before the pandemic?

Jeff Frenkel:        Well, it’s a lot of work at school. I mean, you’re there for many hours. And then, in my situation, like tonight I got home after seven o’clock. And, luckily this year my daughter’s with me on my team, but you miss out on some things. And my other son, he’s in baseball so I end up missing some of that. And so you’re putting in, many times, 12 hour days during the week. And just…

Amanda Frenkel:    I do remember when… Jeff has coached his entire life. So if he wasn’t playing sports, then he was coaching. He went right from playing to coaching. So even in college he was coaching high school teams, just I think even on a volunteer basis where it’s you, or you maybe had like an internship –

Jeff Frenkel:        And I did, it was volunteer, but yeah.

Amanda Frenkel:    Yeah, so we had three children. And when the first two were very small, remember when you coached basketball? Winters are brutal and cold and kids cry a lot and there were nights he did not… Because basketball, you’d have like two or three games a week. And when your family is young and you have these teachers who are trying to raise a young family but yet they’re coaching, which is great, because they should be the ones coaching. I mean, the kids respond to them. And it’s what’s your passion, you love it, but it does take a toll on the family and there were many nights when I was waiting, waiting for him to get home like here’s the baby. Welcome Home, daddy. 

And I remember we had to make an agreement because he was coaching three sports and I just could not be a coach’s widow all year. So eventually then he tapered down and just did the spring sports. But it’s hard because it is fun. You want to be there but you can’t. You can’t do it all. You can’t have it all at the same time. I guess maybe you can do it all but maybe over time.

Maximillian Alvarez:    And what about for you teaching elementary Spanish, is that what you’ve been teaching for the majority of the past two decades?

Amanda Frenkel:    Well, that’s kind of funny because I keep going back to school and getting more licensures and more degrees because I enjoy learning. And so I started out teaching middle school Spanish and language arts, And then I switched to teaching fourth grade, regular elementary, which was amazing. And then there was an opportunity to teach ELL in Spanish, which was amazing. And then we built a new school and they asked me to teach Spanish there. And I also have a reading degree so I teach reading halftime, too. So I’ve been a lot of different places. It’s been great because it’s been a good experience. And I think out of the five buildings in our district, I’ve taught at four of them. But it’s been interesting because I can see kind of the inner workings of the system and people administration and other colleagues and it’s been great.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Can we talk about that, since you’ve been in all corners of the district, or almost all corners, I guess, for folks who have never been to the Hortonville district, or [to] really know what the school system in a more rural district looks like. Could you… What does the district here look like? What are those five buildings that you were talking about?

Amanda Frenkel:    We have one high school, it used to be a K through 12 building. We’ve grown so fast that now we have three elementary buildings, two middle schools, and the high school. The nice thing about, I mean, they’re growing, they’re still growing. Our enrollment is high, up every year. But I like the way it’s set up at Hortonville. We have three buildings on the same campus. So the high school, the middle school, and elementary, and they work really well together. You have middle school kids going over to elementary to help, you have middle school kids going up to a high school to take high school classes. You have high schoolers going into elementary and middle to mentor. So that’s amazing. And then on the Greenville side we have two elementaries in Greenville, the first Greenville Elementary and then North Greenville, and Greenville Elementary has a middle school next to it. And they keep passing referendums and the growth projectile is insane. And I don’t know what they’re going to do for the next building.

Maximillian Alvarez:    But is that, is the growth like a population boom? Or is the district itself just expanding? Or both?

Jeff Frenkel:        I think a little bit of both, because from what I understand the Appleton area, or somewhere around there, they’re landlocked, so they’re not allowing more students to come in. But Hortonville is taking them all in so everybody’s building on the outskirts of Appleton, which is Greenville.

Amanda Frenkel:    And Greenville has the space to build. And then we have Ellington as space to build the town center so everyone’s kind of building out. Taxes are a little lower in Ellington. I think Greenville, the location, because it’s close to Appleton a lot of families work in Appleton. And I do feel like that people are attracted to Hortonville in Greenville because it’s still that big little town, like they still have that little town feeling. It’s very family-focused but it’s big enough for your kids to have a lot of opportunities. I mean, we teach Spanish, we start at second grade.

Maximillian Alvarez:    That’s better than I had in Southern California.

Amanda Frenkel:    That’s a luxury. There’s not a lot of buildings that do that. And I think a lot of the things that they offer even at the middle school and the high school, the programs that they offer… Being considered a small town, I mean, Hortonville is maybe what, 1,500 people. But I mean, our student enrollment is pretty big. So they have a lot of good course offerings.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, not to make you be like census takers or anything, but can you say a little about what the community here is like? Is it a lot of people, farmers, are they working in Appleton and their kids are going to school here? Just to give people a little sense of the place and the community that you’re working within, people who’ve never been to this part of the country.

Jeff Frenkel:        Well I’m trying to think, because I think there’s… If you’re in Hortonville, there’s more. There used to be a bigger farming community, I don’t know if it’s as big anymore. With Greenville there’s more people I think that work more in Appleton and so they’re…

Amanda Frenkel:    More entrepreneurs. Yeah, things like that, too.

Jeff Frenkel:        Yeah, it’s hard to say. I mean there’s a lot of similarities, but there’s a lot of differences too, with the two.

Amanda Frenkel:    I think the difference too is that Hortonville has generations and generations and generations of people here. So when they feel something they feel it deep. And then Greenville, just like us, are people that have all been transplanted in because they see the area, it’s growing. It’s right outside of Appleton but still has a small town feeling. There’s plenty of land to build yet and they have options they can build, they can build on three acres, or they can build on a half acre, they can build on a quarter of an acre.

Jeff Frenkel:        Greenville has grown up a lot, because we used to come here for Thanksgiving shopping when I was younger and it was always… It was just fields in the Greenville area, there was really nothing there. And now it’s like you said, there’s a lot more history in Hortonville or the Hortonville area, this city compared to Greenville where it keeps growing. And so you get a different…

Amanda Frenkel:    I think sometimes when decisions are made or they’re talking about the expansion of towns or combining because the two towns are combining for the high school, I think sometimes there are differences of opinions because of where people come from and the history that they have and that they know. So people from Hortonville have been here for how many generations and Greenville people have been here for maybe one.

Maximillian Alvarez:    So does that come out? Because I guess that would normally be a situation where, thinking in sports terms, you would go to the neighboring town to play in football and you’d have that rivalry. But in a school district where you include both of those, does that show up in the classroom or on the school grounds?

Jeff Frenkel:        I don’t really notice it in the classroom. And I don’t even notice it in the field in sportings. But I do hear it from people, like parents. And they always say well we have Greenville students and they’re playing over the Hortonville students or vice versa. As a coach, I don’t even know where these kids are from. But..

Amanda Frenkel:    There’s little whisperings, like our daughter is a senior in high school and they had prom. And all the kids got together, got a big bus, they rented it, 40-some kids. They went to the Paine Art Center and took pictures and then they’re like, oh, come on so-and-so, get in the picture. And she goes, oh, I’m not even Hortonville. And I was like, [gasps], because I don’t, because the adults don’t hear it necessarily. But there’s something ingrained in them that they still, even the 17 year olds are separating themselves between Greenville and Hortonville. And she didn’t feel like she should be in the picture.

Jeff Frenkel:        Because they started out in Greenville Middle School or Hortonville Middle School. So then when they combine at the high school, they’ve already established their friends. And…

Amanda Frenkel:    Yes, and in middle school the sports teams play against each other because they need more kids to play, so that makes sense. But really, we’re all gonna be on the same team. So yeah. And then I think it trickles down from the parents, again, making the decisions because, yeah.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, I think, not to project too much onto Hortonville itself, but I know that, having been obsessed with the history not only of the strike but of educators in this district and how the relationship between teachers like yourselves and the surrounding community have evolved over the decades, one thing that I kept hearing from interviews that people did or articles that were written or footage that I saw, is that people in Hortonville proper for a long time were still very… They didn’t want to talk about the strike. Right, it left a deep scar on the community. And like you’re saying, that history goes deep.

And it means a lot to people. And I think that, not like it necessarily shows up in an everyday sort of way, but I do think that there are traces of it even in the ways that the local… The fact that the education association locally here and the school board wouldn’t even reach a full contract for decades after the strike. And so I guess what I’m trying to say is, bring us up more to the present day and ask about the elephant in the room which is Act 10. Like we’re talking here 10 years after the passing of Act 10 which was more or less a nuclear bomb dropped on not just educators in the state but all public sector workers.

And it’s really that history, right, that has shaped how you work and how you and your coworkers work around the state. So, that’s all a long way of setting us up to maybe talk about moving from 1974 in Hortonville to 2011 in Wisconsin, where in a lot of ways the lessons of Hortonville on how to break workers. How to impose your will upon working people was really taken statewide by Scott Walker and those other pieces of shit. Pardon my French, I don’t mean to swear in your house.

I know that y’all were saying that you were there in Madison, right? When all this was going on? Could you take us back to that? What was it like? What brought you out there? Were you political people before that? Or was this something that just you knew that you had to go and be part of?

Jeff Frenkel:        Yeah, well, I really wasn’t too much into politics. But I was the union treasurer for over 15 years now. 17 years, probably. But I was involved in the union always. But I never was, I didn’t do a lot. But when that happened it was just one of those things that, I hopped on the one of the first buses that they had and I went down there. Because I just knew it was… I felt it was really important because they were just stripping teachers’ rights away and going after our salary and I just felt it was very important to be down there.

I was on there multiple times. And one of the times there were over 100,000 people there. And it was not only that I felt important to be there but it was cool to see. And it was cool to see, one of the times one of the high schools down in Madison, they had a bunch of students walk out and they were marching alongside us. So it wasn’t just teachers there, it was kids there and it was parents there. And I just felt that it’s one of those once in a lifetime things to witness and was hoping for a better outcome. But I don’t think we had a choice in what was going to happen.

And, ‘cause it really, I mean, going off on coming after teachers, Walker talked about balancing the budget and people always think, oh, he balanced the budget. Well, it was our salaries that balanced the budget. I mean, I look back at it and, both of us being teachers, we got hit doubly hard because we lost, I looked at it, over $6,100 in take home pay that year. And the biggest thing they say is, well, they had to pay their five and a half percent towards retirement because the school board was paying that. Well, that was always negotiated into our contract and our salary. So we took less of a salary so that would be going towards our retirement.

And we always took less salary because we wanted better insurance. So a teacher’s salary was lower compared to most, pretty much all my friends that graduated with degrees that went to the private sector. So they’re making twice as much money as me but I knew I had good insurance. I knew I had a good retirement. And then they took that away, and I’m fine with paying five and a half percent, just like the private sector. But the problem is at the time they didn’t compensate us for that, so we lost money. And that’s what really gets me is I took a huge pay cut to balance that budget. So it really wasn’t Walker that did it. It was you and I and all the other teachers that did that, and all the public workers.

And then I look back at my pay stubs. And it took me over seven years to get back to a comparable salary of take home pay that I had before Act 10. So I lost seven years of salary plus the raises each year. So they gave us raises but that five and a half percent, that was a big chunk. So that was a huge pay cut in salary. So to take that, one teacher in a family, it’s not that big of a deal. But when you have two teachers in a family it’s a big deal.

And so that’s one of the biggest reasons I went down to Madison and I had friends down there. We would meet up and we’d walk around the whole day and it was nice to see, I mean, it was neat to see, but there was a lot of hatred towards us. I remember going down with Amanda and I and our kids, our two kids. And my daughter made a little sign and something about teachers, I don’t remember exactly what, we put it in our car. And we had a car, we had somebody drive by us honk at us and flipped us the bird with my kids in the car just because of the little sign in her hands [crosstalk]. Yeah. And I’m thinking, we were just, we had no idea. We were just thinking, really? This is that big of a deal? I mean…

Amanda Frenkel:    I felt a little naive going down there. But I think for me, too, I am a little bit more naive about things. And I just was in disbelief like, they can’t do this, they’re not gonna do this, and this is gonna affect us forever.

Jeff Frenkel:        Because I assumed that everybody was like, oh, it’s the cause, everybody likes teachers. And…

Amanda Frenkel:     I think for me, that was the most emotional part. I feel like I got punched in the gut. Because I felt like, what do you mean? I’m in a noble profession and I choose this because I choose my community, I’m not choosing it to make money. I’m not choosing it other than I want to be in a community, I want to raise my children, I want all the stakeholders in the community, I want us all to take care of each other. And I thought I was doing a job that everyone respected and wanted and I’ve always felt a lot of love and support from the community from that and students and children and families.

But that to me was, like I said, I wasn’t just in disbelief, like they’re not gonna knock down us teachers, we’re on the same team, right? And I felt that it was hard. And then too, for us, we just felt like it was an opportunity to teach our children. Our daughter was seven at the time. She’s asking a lot of questions. She’s very inquisitive. And we were going to take her with us on this journey because we wanted her to grow up knowing that if things are not right, you need to advocate for yourself and you need to advocate for others who are not able to and show that support for one another. So it’s a good family memory. But…

Maximillian Alvarez:    Would you say that… I mean, because I know that one of the reasons that Scott Walker was even elected in the first place was people, not just in Wisconsin but all over the country, all over the world, really, were hurting from the recession

Jeff Frenkel:        Yeah. And he said he was gonna do brown bag lunch every time and drive this car. Right?

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah, Mr. Tighten the belt. Yeah, it really rode that wave of fear, anxiety, anger, pain, resentment. My own family lost everything in the recession, we lost the house that I grew up in in the recession. So like, I know, I remember what that was like. This time 10 years ago I was working as a temp 12 hour days in factories and warehouses in Southern California just to try to stay afloat.

And so it seems like Walker, the media, and a number of other actors were really able to weaponize that and say, look, we know everyone’s hurting. And we can balance the budget. The people who are keeping us from balancing the budget, it’s not the corporations, not the banks, it’s not all the big entities that are getting the vast lion’s share of public money, it’s teachers who are getting pensions off of your dime. So I guess what I’m asking is like, having been teachers in Hortonville for 20 years, did you notice that shift after the recession that it was really anger targeted towards teachers? Or was it like that you saw this deep resentment towards teachers that just happened to emerge during Act 10?

Amanda Frenkel:    For me I felt like it gave people that we know, friends of ours, an excuse to be like, no it’s you guys. You need to pay your fair share, like to, I don’t know, validate what they want, what they wanted. Like they thought they should make more money so we should pay more money, or, I don’t know. But I was shocked because we had good friends of ours that were listening to all that other side of the media, or the news or Fox News or whatever.

Oh my gosh, and so I feel like they felt like they had this power then to say anything they wanted to us, in that they felt like they were in the right because someone breathed out loud the words that they thought one time and then it gave power to them. And again, I was in disbelief. Like what are they talking about? What? What are we doing? Like, you were just praising me for spending all these hours with your child because he can’t read or whatever and now all of a sudden you’re slashing me down and are angry because you think I make too much money and I’m a teacher? Like I just, again, I was in disbelief and I just couldn’t make sense of it, personally.

Jeff Frenkel:        That was the biggest thing. When they keep saying oh, yeah, you get good insurance and you get a good pension but they don’t realize they make twice as much as I am still.

Amanda Frenkel:    That’s the difference. Like our friends are making six figures each  in a household. So maybe they’re not, maybe they don’t get that.

Jeff Frenkel:        It’s not in every case. But I mean –

Amanda Frenkel:    But understand if they would have more money to put money aside for those things for insurance, like, okay, one friend is an entrepreneur, right? So maybe they don’t. So she only works because she needs to carry insurance. And then he doesn’t have insurance. But my point is they make more money so that if they don’t have insurance through their company, they’re putting money away because they make so much money that they put money away for those things that come up, where we just have it as part of our contract that’s put away for us. We don’t make enough money that I could separately put away extra money for insurance.

Jeff Frenkel:        Because insurance is part of our salary. I mean, that’s…

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, it’s a testament to the fact that even the concept of a pension seems so foreign to so many people. And so, when you have eroded things that should be fundamental rights and expectations of working people so much so that the few people who actually have those things that unions fought for to provide, everyone looks at them and says, oh, they’re getting special treatment. It’s like, no, we’re all getting screwed over. You should have this too. I’m not the villain here. But that, I guess, yeah, it’s just a testament, like I was saying, to the fact that eroding so many of the supports that working people should have leaves a huge red X on your back if you’re a public sector worker or a unionized worker who actually has a pension.

Jeff Frenkel:        Yeah, that’s exactly right.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah, it’s really, really, really sad. And, – Oh, go ahead.

Amanda Frenkel:    I was just thinking I feel bad for other generations that are coming up, because union workers have worked really hard and have fought to have the rights that they have and my worry was that they’re stripping away these rights. And now my nieces and nephews are going into the same workforces, like being educators and whatnot, and they wouldn’t know the difference.

Like they were so excited to go save the world and teach all the children and they wouldn’t realize like, yeah, you should have a 30 minute lunch, they should not cut it to 16 minutes and think that’s okay. Or, any of those things. Or, I felt bad at age 25, this young teacher should not feel like she’s losing it or is not… What’s the word? She’s not capable? Because they have them on an overloaded work schedule and she sees other teachers doing it. Because it’s like, no, that should not be that way.

You should not be working seven class periods a day without a prep, or eight class periods without a prep, but they wouldn’t know the difference if they just went into education and started doing it. So I think the older veteran teachers need to speak up and help them and show them because they wouldn’t know the difference. And they’re just going to take the job because they love teaching. They’ll just assume that’s the way it is. And it’s not like that. It shouldn’t be like that. They can’t function like that.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, so I mean, I think that’s a perfect segue to talking about what it’s been like after Act 10, right, like both from the teaching side but also from the union side. Because Jeff, you were talking about what Act 10 meant in terms of “balancing the budget.” But there were also very clear union busting provisions baked into Act 10. Then a couple years later you had right-to-work. So I guess, could we talk about, from the union side, you both being organizers with the union? What Act 10 changed for you and your ability to do your job as organizers and as teachers?

Jeff Frenkel:        Yeah, I think the biggest thing is that we’ve lost a lot of members because we’re not able to go to the negotiation table with the school board anymore. We would, when I was on the negotiation team, it was always, we would bargain for things in our contract, could be anything from working conditions to salary. Salary is always the biggest thing, but, just language in the contract. And so we would always talk with the school board, so we would always be together and we would go back and forth and we’d come up with a compromise. And we’d do that every year. But now we can’t even talk to the school board. We can’t do anything. So a lot of our union members have dropped because we just, the school board is going to give us a salary no matter what. At the end of the year in September they tell us all right, this is how much you’re going to make extra this year.

Amanda Frenkel:    They feel less empowered. So I feel like they were feeling a little defeated. So we’ve been working to raise our membership numbers again, but that really did hurt our union quite a bit.

Jeff Frenkel:          Yeah. I mean, we went from 100% to maybe a fourth, 25%, 30%. And that was the biggest thing that they wanted was to just go after unions and bust them up, because they felt they had too much power. And as with anything you have power in numbers, but when they get rid of those numbers they have the power. And that just took away everything. I mean, our school, our district, our superintendent, he’s done a really nice job. He does have a handbook committee where we do talk about the handbook. So we come up with suggestions and then they take it back to administrators, and then they decide whether yes or no, so we do get suggestions on that, but it’s…

Our current superintendent, this was not the case with the previous superintendent administration. Our superintendent now is doing his best to make things right. But even for him his hands are tied and it’s hard for him to make up for all that last time. But he sees it, he acknowledges it, he’s doing the best he can. But it’s hard. He knows it’s hard.

Jeff Frenkel:        So we’re lucky that we have a good superintendent that sees that, and I could definitely see how if you do have the wrong superintendent in your school you’re out of luck. I mean, they’re gonna take it. I could see him take advantage of any, every little thing that they can, and I don’t think they would but there’s nothing stopping them from doing it. But like I said, our superintendent, he doesn’t… He does a nice job with everything but really our salary’s lagging, because they’ve increased the front end of it.

So when you get hired, we’re one of the top paying districts for beginning teachers. But after Act 10, they got rid of all our stuff. So pre Act 10 we would always be able to have a salary schedule and we’d have lanes. So it encouraged you to go back and get your Masters. So you would go back and get education, which helps you in the classroom. Post Act 10 our district got rid of the lanes and everything, so there’s really no incentive to go back to get your Masters anymore which I think hurts the students.

And so those newer teachers, they come in with a high salary but they’re stuck. I mean, you get your percent increase of whatever they give you and they try to do the best they can. But you’re pretty much stagnant for, if you’re starting to have, let’s say just 43,000 as a beginning teacher it might take you seven, eight years to get to 50,000. And when you compare that to what it was pre Act 10 or just with… I always look at it as people who have the same degrees and you go to college for your specific area. I mean, a lot of kids are coming out of college going to the workforce, they start at 50. And then in a couple years 60, 70, 80, it just keeps going up quicker.

Amanda Frenkel:    That was like the saddest realization when I had a girlfriend of mine. She was close to retirement age, she was maybe like three years away from retirement and her son, he got his first job out of college and he was making well over her salary that she’d been making close to retirement, and he was 25 years old.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Yeah, and like you were saying, the starting salary is attractive, but then you basically get stuck in that. And then you add on top of that everything else that you were talking about. Like again, the whole marketing of Act 10 as a balancing the budget thing. If you look at the actual details – Not even the fine print – If you just actually look at the thing. It’s like well, no, that was a pretext to bust unions. That was a pretext to make workers less empowered, like you were saying, to give workers less power to make workers more exploitable, more “flexible.”

Because then you also have these provisions where Act 10 not limited what you could bargain for, like you were both saying, it made unions have to recertify themselves every year not with a majority of the people who voted, which is normally what happens in union elections, but the majority of a membership. So you’re essentially stacking the deck, you’re baking into the process what are going to be mechanisms that are going to reduce union membership, union density. And it’s been born out.

Jeff Frenkel:        And they charge you to do it, too. And they charge you to try to recertify. So you have to pay to recertify. And we tried to do that the first couple of years and I think it was like $200 or $400. And we just don’t have that kind of money to do that every year for our union dues. It’s like…

Maximillian Alvarez:    Well, then also like you were saying, you guys are teachers, you have families, you’re coaching. If you’re gonna get 50% of your membership to vote when they need to every year that also takes a lot of work. That’s going away, that’s also labor that you’re doing for free. And so I mean, I think we painted the picture enough for people to know Act 10 did a lot of damage. And it did a lot of intentional damage to workers like yourselves and people across the public sector. We know that it has made things incredibly hard for people to organize, for workers to band together to demand what they deserve. And I think that in the 10 years since the passing of Act 10, a lot of unions have been doing soul searching, a lot of organizers have been trying new tactics to try to adjust to these conditions and to rebuild the power that they’d lost. And so I wanted to ask you all about that, how have you built out of the rubble? How have you adjusted, what are things looking like, now?

Amanda Frenkel:    I feel like a few years ago when the teachers were really at their wit’s ends and really like, this cannot be happening to us because we’re part of the community. And because we live here, and our lives, have grown up here, and our children, and we know neighbors and friends. There were a couple people in the community that stepped up and said, this is not okay. And we’re like, we know, like, yes, please. And they said, well just tell your bosses, tell your principals. And we’re like, it doesn’t work that way.

So then one mom said, a friend obviously, said, well, I’m going to run for the school board. And we said, okay. And she was like, really? And we’re like, yeah. It’s like, that’s what we need. Because you have seen it, you’ve seen it on both ends, you see what we’re going through, we’re not lying to you when we’re telling you these things, but the way it’s portrayed through the school board or the school notes or the website or the notices, it’s not always what it seems to be even though everyone is trying to do their very best and they have good intentions, but there’s some information lost in translation.

So she was like, alright, so she had no experience in local politics. But she said, I want to do this for you teachers because I know that every single one of you is coming from a good place. And I know that you’re here for our children. So as a union we decided to back her. We had our representatives from the area come and help us to organize as a local union. We spent nights in her house, talking about our voter lists, everyone speak to five people, we did the going from door to door, knocking on doors, and we really lifted her up. The person that she was going to take the seat on, he’d been there for, I don’t even know maybe 20 years. Fantastic, I’m sure. But we just knew that we needed to put someone on that school board that had a bigger picture than what they had been told for maybe 10 or 20 years. And she was really willing to learn and just take it all in and try to do what was best for all of our students and our children in the community.

And then we also had another gentleman step up who was married to a teacher who might or might not have been tired of her complaining and seeing her go through this and not understanding what was going on. So we offered him our support as well. And so we were very fortunate that year that both of those people that stepped up made it on the school board, I felt like we flipped it there. So I feel like for us for having a smaller union and for a union that was unfortunately decreasing in size a little bit because of Act 10, we stepped up, we put our time where our thoughts were, and we made it happen. And so we felt pretty good about that.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Hell ya. And I mean, when you’re talking about the things that people saw yourselves and your fellow co-workers struggling through, that’s everything that we’ve been talking about, right? That’s questions of pay. That’s the lack of ability to bargain in good faith with the school board itself, to really have a say in your workplace. But there’s also things that we’ve touched on a little bit, but there’s like teaching loads, right? There’s the amount of prep time that you can have for preparing for teaching seven periods in a row.

So there are a lot of things that are baked into that exhaustion and frustration and the daily grind of being an educator. But, I think that, what’s really incredible when you take that long historical view, especially when we’re talking about Hortonville. I mean, because that strike in ’74, it did not end well, right? Like Act 10. It’s a really painful memory for the movement. I mean, you had over 80 teachers who were fired by that school board.

Because the school board would not bargain in good faith with them. They were intransigent. Every time the teachers tried to offer a compromise, they would just say, no, no, take what we offered or leave it, when the teachers were getting more and more fed up with their high teaching loads and everything like that. They authorize the strike. And then Hortonville, unlike so many districts around the state, took the extreme step to fire everybody. Things got uglier from there.

But the point that I’m making is that for years and even decades after that, teachers in this district, there was no negotiation between them and the school board, there was an iron wall more or less between the two. You only really had a neutral outside arbitrator, that was the only reason why anyone had a contract in this district to begin with until like the 21st century, when you two came in, when you have this hopefully a bit of a turning of the page into a new era for this district, where teachers could bargain and rebuild some semblance of a union. Only to have the wind knocked out of you with Act 10. So it’s like you just got a footing to rebuild after the long process of healing from Hortonville, and then Act 10 comes along and makes things harder again.

So I think it’s really incredible in that grand scheme of things that y’all have managed to still retain a union in general, to still build and to still have people invested enough in the future of educators in this district to actually flip two school board seats. That’s pretty incredible. And so I guess I wanted to ask, looking forward, where the two of you and your co-workers and this community feel the building needs to happen and what needs to be done to really restore that power among the workers in Hortonville.

Amanda Frenkel:    I feel like we’re on the right track. I feel like our union has been very active with, of course, getting those two school board members voted in. And we have a new superintendent who’s been with us for maybe three years. Maybe four. But he’s done a phenomenal job. His hands have been tied with a few things and he’s making up for lost time. But he has been honest and he’s very transparent. He came to us and said, what do you need from us? And the first thing I said was we just need transparency. Like, we need to know that we’re all on the same page. And he has honored that since day one.

And he also lives in the community. So in all areas he’s invested too, so he wants everyone to succeed. So when we started talking to him, because our union would meet with him once a month, and by union I mean our one representative would go and meet, he was open to our ideas and talking about those things. Around the same time we had started the path with our professional learning communities and that had been going very well and strong, and so he’s honored all those conversations. And he has always tried to do the best thing and the right thing by teachers and for kids and lives our mission about moving all kids forward, learning at the highest levels.

And even during this year, like during COVID when we teachers were like, this is too much, you cannot have us do. There’s not enough hours in a day where we can teach kids virtually and have a separate class for them, and then teach these eight hours of kids here. And then also worry about the kids that are quarantining back and forth and assessing and having that all on. And he was one who offered grace, we got you. And right away he said, what do you need, and he listened. And he’s probably for me the first superintendent who listened and then followed through.

So we said, we need more time, we need time to prepare those extra things. So they changed all of our early release days where we had professional development, they canceled the professional development for the entire school year and gave us that time for planning. So we can plan for our virtual students and for assessments and catching kids up who were quarantined. When they started offering the COVID testing at the building site so that our teachers could be tested quickly and return back to work quicker, he said he was going to do the testing, he didn’t want anyone else to be exposed. So he said, I will do the testing. He gowned up every day or three days a week when they were doing it. So he has always been there on the forefront to make sure he was fighting for teachers and kids in the community. And I think that’s because this is his town too, he’s here for us.

Maximillian Alvarez:    Do you have any thoughts on the union side of it?

Jeff Frenkel:        Yeah, I mean, he’s made it easier just to be able to communicate with him, so, we can, like Amanda said, we could actually go to him and he would listen to us as a HFT member, and he would always, when there was grievances or anything with a teacher, he would make sure you can have a union representative with you. So he was good in that aspect. It’s a lot different than pre Act 10. As far as just being able to, like I said earlier, negotiating with the school board, but with anything contractual. But he has made some things work. Like, we would be able to talk about the handbook with him, but he just makes sure we can’t talk about anything contract with him, so he’s done a nice job with that. So.

Amanda Frenkel:    I think he’s tried to balance things out. He knows how much we’ve lost. So he’s developed the handbook committee, where there’s representation from every building and level. He also –

Jeff Frenkel:        He made sure that there was a HFT representative on that handbook, because not everybody’s in the Union, but he tried to make sure, like, I was there and he tried to make sure some other teachers were around there. And so that has been nice. And he’s willing to listen to that. It’s helped a lot to have a superintendent that will listen, he doesn’t have to.

Amanda Frenkel:    That’s the thing, he knows he doesn’t have to, he’s doing it. So he’s offering that in good faith and he knows that we’re coming to him in good faith. He also developed an executive leadership team which also has representation from each building. And that’s to where he asks, like, what do you need? What are your teachers saying in your building? So I think, it used to be years ago that was the union saying, this is what all of our teachers want and need, because most of our teachers were in the union.

And now because our numbers are low post Act 10 he’s created this other committee, but he’s been good about who he has selected to be on there, or even asks volunteers, but he makes sure that there’s a good variety of people with different viewpoints, early young teachers and veteran teachers all the way up. So he’s able to communicate and collaborate with everyone.

There was one more but I couldn’t think of it. One more thing that he did like that. Oh, and then the listening sessions. So he also has listening sessions, and he’ll sit down for two hours and ask teachers what they need. And if he has answers then he’ll give them to you. And if not, he will say I will get back to you on that. The same with the union when Penelope, who’s our union president, goes with him and talks each month and she says, black and white like this is the question you need to answer me. He will respond and answer, where other years other superintendents we got the back and forth or whatever, but he’s been very honest and will give answers right away and talk it through. He’s not dodging the bullet on anything. Like he’s facing it all. Yeah, he’s doing the hard things.

Jeff Frenkel:        I think the biggest thing is being able to communicate with new teachers that come in and they just don’t, they don’t see the value a lot of times with a union because they see, I gotta pay so much dues a month and they can’t afford that, or they think it’s, and I was looking at it, to me, it’s insurance. I mean, if something happens I want the unions backing that… I mean, there’s obviously things that if you do as a teacher there’s nothing the union can do for you. It’s if you’re that bad at something –

Amanda Frenkel:    Or if you’re doing something wrong, you should not be teaching, as with any position.

Jeff Frenkel:        Right. So I mean, if something comes up with a student, I just feel it’s a little like insurance. I mean, I feel safe that the union lawyer is able to help me out or answer questions.

Amanda Frenkel:    The other thing is we promote the union too, because we are veteran teachers. And I have nieces and nephews that are in education now. And they don’t know the difference if someone’s not telling them. So I don’t want them to be 25, 27 now in teaching, and then their unions fall to the wayside, and then in their age 40 and there’s not a union to help them because no one kept it up. Because the only reason they have all these rights and great things is because people are working toward it every year. So I feel it’s our responsibility to keep educating them. And in promoting our union so that it continues to go because…

Jeff Frenkel:        Just like my dad was a factory worker and he had a union. And I mean, really, that’s how you get things done. I mean, you get your seat, anything safety related, or to make sure you get your breaks. And I mean, our pensions or anything like that. I mean –

Amanda Frenkel:    Your time off, or whatever. Weekends, or [inaudible].

Jeff Frenkel:        So you gotta have a union backing to help you because not everybody can advocate for themselves. I mean, you can’t have, like a district of like 250, 60 teachers, you can’t have everyone on their own and just say, especially new teachers, oh, I need this, I need – Well, it’s a lot easier to do when you have a big membership to help you out. Compared to going out on your own. It’s just it can’t be done.

Amanda Frenkel:    Yeah. So in our district, again another positive for our superintendent is we as a local union asked our superintendent if we could have time during those first four in service days when the school year starts, and you usually have professional development in that. We asked him if we could use a two hour time slot to welcome new teachers, teach them about the union, tell them what we’re about, the importance and then get them signed up for the union, and they’ve allowed that. [Except] this year because of COVID. Now, things have been off the table this year. Everyone’s just trying to survive the year but I know that next year when we say okay, can we use an hour or two they would be like… So I like that because they know where we stand. We know where they are standing and no one feels threatened. We’ve both been transparent on both ends, and it’s a mutual respect.

Maximillian Alvarez

Editor-in-Chief

Ten years ago, I was working 12-hour days as a warehouse temp in Southern California while my family, like millions of others, struggled to stay afloat in the wake of the Great Recession. Eventually, we lost everything, including the house I grew up in. It was in the years that followed, when hope seemed irrevocably lost and help from above seemed impossibly absent, that I realized the life-saving importance of everyday workers coming together, sharing our stories, showing our scars, and reminding one another that we are not alone. Since then, from starting the podcast Working People—where I interview workers about their lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles—to working as Associate Editor at the Chronicle Review and now as Editor-in-Chief at The Real News Network, I have dedicated my life to lifting up the voices and honoring the humanity of our fellow workers.
 
Email: max@therealnews.com
 
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