- In Verona, Wisc., union leaders discovered that some women were getting paid nearly $20,000 less than male educators with fewer years of experience doing the same jobs.
- While the Verona union pursued a new, fair and transparent salary schedule, their state union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, provided essential legal representation.
- Unions and collective bargaining reduce pay gaps between men and women, research shows.
Over her 31-year career as a special education teacher, Maria Andreano-Beirne has done wonderful things for Verona, Wisc., students.
Decades ago, she piloted inclusion and focused her colleagues on equity. She started a summer program for students with disabilities who had been excluded from summer school. She also started an innovative vocational program, connecting her kids to local vet clinics, senior centers, etc. And, with colleagues she established the trailblazing Verona Area Autism Support Team and developed its training curriculum.
She frequently worked late. Took her work home on Fridays. Now, looking back, she says, “I feel like I really gave my life to Verona and I’m proud of the work I did.”
So, imagine how Andreano-Beirne felt when she found out, in 2019, that another special ed teacher—somebody with 11 fewer years of experience, somebody who would eventually call her to ask for advice with students—was getting paid $11,466 more a year to do the exact same job. “It was horrible. Sickening,” she recalls.
That other teacher? He was a man.
And it turns out it wasn’t just Andreano-Beirne. A group of ten educators in Verona, all women, were being paid nearly $20,000 less than less-experienced men doing the same jobs. Their local union, the Verona Area Education Association (VAEA), brought the problem to their attention in 2019—and then, their state union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), delivered its legal firepower to the battle.
This year, the women won a settlement providing $450,000 in back pay, interest, and retirement earnings. The VAEA also made sure this won’t happen to additional Verona women through a new, fair and transparent salary schedule placement system. In addition, the VAEA won adjusted salary schedule placements for 327 additional teachers who had not been credited for their years of experience. This represented a $1.7 million dollar investment in those teachers. Meanwhile, WEAC is advancing a “Fair Pay Now” initiative across the state.
“Districts are on notice that if they engage in discrimination, our union will not stop until justice is realized,” says WEAC President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen. “Every educator deserves a fair, predictable and transparent salary schedule.”
“I Don’t Get It. I Just Don’t Get It.”
The Verona story starts in 2019, when then-VAEA President Sarah Greenlaw was flipping through the district’s salary data in preparation for contract negotiations. Among the rows and charts, something caught her eye.
At the time, Greenlaw was an experienced special education teacher who had recently achieved National Board Certification. Indeed, she was the first special educator in Verona and the 16th in the state to get national certification. And, when she got it, she went to the district’s HR people to ask if might mean a salary bump. Nope. “They told me, ‘Sarah, you’re right where you’re supposed to be,’” Greenlaw recalls.
But that day, deep in the district’s salary data, Greenlaw saw something. “I noticed this special education teacher, male, relatively new to the district—and I remember thinking, ‘damn, that’s almost $20,000 more than me!’”
He had a master’s degree. But so did she, plus Greenlaw had National Board Certification, which he did not. “I thought, ‘I don’t get it. I just don’t get it,’” Greenlaw recalls. She brought the data to a state union staff person, who in turn brought it to a WEAC attorney.
The disparity didn’t just affect Greenlaw. The data showed many inequities. She and other VAEA leaders took what they had found on the road, visiting every Verona school to talk with union members about the need for a new, fair and transparent salary schedule. “We did a whole campaign that we called HOPE—Historic Opportunity for Pay Equity,” says Greenlaw. “We explained the inequities and pulled out actual examples, without names.”
School psychologist Marlene Koch went to one of those after-school presentations and noticed a slide describing the characteristics of two Verona student-service professionals: one man, one woman. Both had the same education. The woman had a little more experience. The man was making $18,000 more.
Says Koch: “I looked at it and thought, ‘that might be me.’”
How Did This Happen?
Maybe the story really starts in 2011. That was the year that former Gov. Scott Walker pushed through the anti-union Act 10, over the objections of tens of thousands of educators and parents. Not only did the new law decimate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions in Wisconsin, Act 10 made it possible for district officials to place employees on their salary schedules wherever they liked.
“I was there, protesting at the Capitol in Madison,” recalls Koch. “I never dreamed, when I was there, how Act 10 would personally impact me, in this way!”
That night, after Koch saw VAEA’s presentation, she went home and dove into the data herself. Using an online database of public employee pay, she confirmed that she was, in fact, being paid $18,000 less than her male colleague with less experience. “I was livid,” she recalls. “The next day, I contacted the union president and said, ‘What can I do?’”
Eventually, nine Verona special education teachers and one school psychologist, Koch, would get together, asking what they could to help themselves—and every other woman in Verona. “We always thought we were fighting the fight, not just for us, but for the generations to come,” says Verona special education teacher Maria Carvalho.
At first, during 2019, Koch and her WEAC Regional Director attempted to negotiate with Verona officials, as did Greenlaw. “We met with HR and I said, three times: ‘I’m making $18,000 less than this other person. How would you feel if this were you?’” recalls Koch. “[The HR representative] said, ‘I’d be pissed.’” But he didn’t attempt to fix it.
Then, in 2020, COVID hit. The women met outdoors with WEAC’s attorney to file sex discrimination claims with the Equal Rights Division (ERD) of Wisconsin’s Department of Workforce Development. In August 2020, the ERD found probable cause to believe the district violated the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act, which closely mirrors the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) began its investigation into the matter in late 2020. In January 2022, after months of attempted conciliation failed and Verona refused to raise salaries and provide backpay, the EEOC sued in federal court.
After depositions were taken, in January, the women felt confident, they said. “We had the data,” notes Koch. Then, before the case could go to trial, the district settled.
Equal Pay for Equal Work
Maybe the story of the Verona educators actually starts 60 years ago, in 1963. That’s when President John F. Kennedy signed into law the federal Equal Pay Act, which aimed to fix the historic disparities in women’s wages. At the time, women made about 59 cents for every dollar paid to a man.
The law certainly has helped, but it hasn’t solved the problem. By 2002, women were paid 80 cents to every dollar paid to men. But in 2022? It was still just 82 cents.
Work mostly done by women, such as teaching, is clearly valued less. The “teacher pay penalty”—that is the gap between teacher pay and the earnings of other similarly educated professions—reached an all-time high of 26.4 percent in 2022, the Economic Policy Institute found.
What helps? Unions and collective bargaining make a difference. Where workers collectively bargain, the gap between women and men—and also between White workers and People of Color—is smaller. "Research makes clear that in the United States, union members experience smaller gender and racial pay gaps than their nonunion counterparts," according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress. "Female union members earn more than their nonunion counterparts, and the overall gender pay gap is smaller for unionized women than for women who are not in a union.
In Verona, the women always knew that, as educators, they were generally underpaid. “[Over the years], I always thought, ‘I love this job, but Jesus Christ, I can’t afford it!’ Some years, my husband and I were really broke,’’ says Andreano-Beirne.
When Carvalho started, 22 years ago, she made $29,000 a year. Over the years, she saw herself plodding across Verona’s exhausting salary schedule, but it never felt like her pay was what it should be. It never felt like the actual and emotional labor done by her and her Verona colleagues, for their students and families, was recognized or valued, she says.
But this is the life of educators in America, they thought. It’s unfair, of course—“but I thought this is what it is,” says Andreano-Beirne.
The Verona educators could almost live with the lack of pay, overall. What they couldn’t bear? Knowing that it was just them. The women.
The ten Verona women are long-term union members. They joined as soon as they could, as new educators, and remained active members over many years. Despite Walker’s efforts, the Verona union remains strong and active. “I’m very much a believer in the union,” says Koch.
Their faith was justified. In 2021, Greenlaw and her bargaining team pushed through a new, transparent and fair salary schedule placement system. Across the top, it moves from bachelor’s degrees, to master’s, to National Board, and includes a far-right lane for hard-to-fill positions, like school psychologists. Down the left side are steps that acknowledge years of experience—and it doesn’t matter if you got those years in Wisconsin or wherever. “We were aiming for bulls-eye easy, and that’s what we got!” says Greenlaw.
With a new school district administrative team, the union also worked out a three-year agreement to increase the wages of 327 additional district teachers who had not been credited for their years of experience.
“This was never just about just me or the ten of us alone,” says Koch. “I wanted to make sure everybody was fairly compensated, so I’m very proud of the work we were able to do as a union, to fix the salary schedule on a whole.”
Koch’s 15-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter know a little bit about the case, not the details, but the general gist. They were part of the reason Koch spoke up. “I want my kids to know that if you see something that isn’t right, you need to speak up. You need to stand up for what you believe in,” she says. Koch notes that this is easier to do as a member of a powerful union. “I had the safety of the union, protecting me. Even if it had been only me, my union had my back.”
It took a long time—over three years. And it was a roller coaster of emotions. But the union persisted, and their members are glad for it. “I always was a union member, but boy oh boy did this make me think, ‘thank God for the union and thank God for everything they did for me!’” says Andreano-Beirne.