Protesting for Teachers’ Rights: A Management View

It’s been a non-quiet week here in Madison.  Everyone has his or her own take on the events.  Since I’m a member of the Madison School Board, mine is necessarily a management perspective.   Here’s what the week’s been like for me.

Nearly as soon as the governor’s budget repair bill was released last Friday, I had a chance to look at a summary and saw what it did to collective bargaining rights.  Basically, the bill is designed to gut public employee unions, including teacher unions.  While it does not outlaw such unions outright, it eliminates just about all their functions.

Our collective bargaining agreement with MTI is currently about 165 pages, which I think is way too long.  If the bill passes, our next collective bargaining agreement can be one paragraph — way, way, way too short.

On Monday, Board members collaborated on a statement condemning the legislation and the rush to push it through.  All Board members signed the statement on Monday evening and it was distributed to all MMSD staff on Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday, as protests started to build, we received word that most of East High’s students had walked out of class and were peacefully marching down East Washington to join the protest at the Capitol.

(By the way, I think we’re all pretty proud of our high school students these days, what with the West sit-in in October and the general seriousness of purpose most of our protesting students from East and the other high schools have shown this week.  We’re worried that we don’t teach civics in a more formal way in our high schools, but somehow many of our students seem to have picked up the concepts.)

Also on Tuesday, we began getting word that in order to join the protest our teachers might be calling in sick on Wednesday in such numbers that we wouldn’t be able to keep our schools open.

This concerned me.  While I certainly understand our teachers’ motivation, the District has an obligation, for which I and fellow Board members are ultimately responsible, to keep our schools open.

I also thought that a general sick-in was contrary to the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between the District and MTI. Here is what the collective bargaining agreement says:



The Board of Education and MTI subscribe to the principle that differences of opinion between the parties should be resolved by the peaceful means available without interruption of the school program.

Therefore, MTI agrees that there will not be any strikes, workstoppages or slow downs during the life of this Agreement, i.e., for the period commencing July 1, 2009 and ending June 30, 2011. Upon the notification of the President and Executive Director of MTI by the President of the Board of Education of the Madison Metropolitan School District of any unauthorized concerted activity, as noted above, MTI shall notify those in the collective bargaining unit that it does not endorse such activity. Having given such notification, MTI shall be freed of all liability in relation thereto.

The Board of Education agrees that it will not lock-out collective bargaining unit members during the period specified above.

I view this as prohibiting teacher work-stoppages, which is what we’ve had for the last three days.  The collective bargaining agreement is still in force and, no matter what, will remain in force through the end of June. The teachers are understandably concerned about their collective bargaining rights, but to my mind their actions amounted to ignoring their obligations under the agreement that is the fruit of their exercising those rights.

(MTI disagrees – it contends that the only joint action the agreement prohibits are ones that grow out of “differences of opinion between the parties” and that the union is protesting about its disagreements with the governor, not the school district.  I am not persuaded, but I won’t go into why here.)

On Wednesday, I was ready to authorize the district to seek a temporary restraining order against MTI that prohibited the organization from encouraging or facilitating joint actions that result in school closures.  I never viewed this as punitive.  I can respect protesting actions that amount to civil disobedience, but those actions draw significance from the actors’ willingness to accept the consequences of their behavior.   You do the deed, you pay the fine.  So I don’t have a problem with imposing appropriate sanctions for protests (like docking pay) and I don’t view that as expressing any sort of negative value judgment on the protest.

The Board had an emergency meeting at noon on Wednesday.  I think everyone was aware of how fluid the situation was and how tentative our decisions would be.  Without going into the details of the closed session discussion, the upshot was that the district did not commence legal action against MTI or take any other formal steps against our teachers.

The Board held another emergency meeting on Thursday at noon.  My perspective had changed a bit from where it had been on Wednesday.  At this point, Joint Finance had approved the budget repair bill and it looked like it was going to be approved in the Senate and Assembly quite quickly, perhaps that day.  It looked like our teachers were in the process of being steamrolled and I didn’t feel like piling on.  It also looked like the legislative battle would soon be coming to an end, which also figured into my thinking.

Thursday afternoon, it was reported on the MTI website that at the Thursday meeting, the Board had voted unanimously that it would not take any punitive actions against teachers (other than docking pay for missing work), so long as they returned to work on Monday.

This was irritating.  We don’t discuss publicly what happens in our closed sessions (an obligation I’m trying to honor in this post), but someone apparently did, and the message that MTI then conveyed was not accurate.  In light of the rapidly evolving situation, all of our decisions had pretty explicitly been “for this day only” and did not imply any commitments or limitations affecting what we may decide to do later, after the situation had changed some more.

However, other than docking the missing teachers’ pay, I personally am distinctly disinclined to impose any other sort of discipline on our protesting teachers.  My views could change on Monday, though.

The Facebook posting was an irritant because this has been a very challenging situation for the Board.  We’re walking a fine line.  We understand what our teachers are going through as they see their profession and livelihoods threatened. Our teachers aren’t just our employees.  They’re also our friends and neighbors and the lifeblood of our organization. It bothers me and I know it bothers other Board members when we see the Governor and his supporters beating up on our teachers in order to further what I consider to be a radical ideological agenda of union-busting.  We want to be as supportive as we can.  But our first obligation is to our students.  We need to have our schools open.

To get through this minefield relatively intact, we need to have clear lines of communication with MTI and both sides have to be respectful of the others’ position even when we can’t agree.  While it may not have been intended, I thought the Facebook posting regarding the Board’s decision was an unnecessary and unhelpful deviation from that approach, and it was made worse for me when MTI later explained the inaccurate information by saying it was a communication problem between the Board and the superintendent.

On Friday, the 14 Dem Senators had lit off for the territories (or Illinois, at least) and the legislative steamroller had been slowed down.  By Friday, my patience with the school closings had pretty much run out.  We have thousands of students who aren’t being taught, thousands of breakfasts and lunches that aren’t being served to hungry children, lots of parents at wit’s end.  We’re going to have to figure out some way to make up the classroom time, and it won’t be pretty.  (Someone asked me the other day how many days we’ll be giving off for the 4th of July break.)

The Board had decided that if MTI was unable or unwilling to give us assurances that our teachers would be back teaching on Monday, we would go to court seeking an injunction against MTI for its role in what we considered the unauthorized job action.  As I understand it, MTI communicated that the teachers would be back Tuesday but had no assurances for Monday, and so the district went forward with the legal action on Friday afternoon.

It took some time to find a judge who could hear the motion, but Judge Sumi took the matter on late Friday afternoon.   I went over to the hearing after work, but by the time I got there the hearing was over.  I ran into Lester Pines (MTI’s attorney), John Matthews, Mike Lipp and a few others as they were leaving the courtroom.

Lester explained that Judge Sumi had denied the temporary injunction because the District had not demonstrated a likelihood of ultimate success on the merits that the joint action amounted to an illegal strike against the district rather than a coordinated protest against the governor.

Judge Sumi scheduled the matter for a full evidentiary hearing at 8:15 am on Monday morning.  The point of the motion was to get our schools open on Monday.  MTI says the schools will be open on Tuesday.  It may not make a lot of sense to have a full hearing on Monday when it seems unlikely to accomplish anything in terms of school closures.

So, as of Saturday morning, that’s where we are.  Big props to superintendent Dan Nerad and his staff who have been working round-the-clock and have responded to challenges big and small with patience, good sense and grace.

I plan to go to the rally at the Capitol today, just as I have for the past several days.  When I run into friends who are teachers at the rally – and I will – I’ll tell them that I sure hope they’re back at school Monday.

By the way, I went to the Capitol last night.  This was my favorite sign:

We are blessed with a wonderfully supportive community.  We’ve received many emails from parents who express support for the teachers and who say they are willing to put up with the inconvenience of school closings so that the teachers can be at the Capitol working to protect their rights.  (We have also received many emails with distinctly different messages.)

I respect the sentiments that these parents express.  But we have lots and lots of students who don’t have the same support networks and who don’t have good options when they can’t be at school.  These students can least afford missing school (and I know that no one feels worse about that or more torn about the situation than our teachers). And there are many parents with who have work responsibilities that simply can’t accommodate the kinds of inconveniences that the school closings cause.

I also have to say that I don’t know why it is important for the teachers to be at the Capitol during the morning and early afternoon on Monday.  The Assembly won’t be back in session until Tuesday, at which time they’ll start considering many proposed Democratic amendments to the bill.  Nothing will happen in the Senate until the Democrats return to the chamber and I don’t think anyone is predicting that that will occur on Monday.

I don’t want to believe that the primary if not exclusive reason our schools may not be open on Monday, and our students will be on their own yet again, is because an MTI labor leader promised some other labor leader that that is what would happen.  We’re all trying our best to get through this.  I don’t want to feel like I’m being played for a sucker, a chump or a marionette.

We need to be open on Monday.  Our schools, our students, and yes, our teachers all deserve that.  Let’s figure it out.

UPDATE – Sunday evening.  For reasons that I do not understand, MTI announced that teachers will not report tomorrow (Monday), even though neither the Assembly or Senate will be in session.  Our 24,000+ students will miss another day of learning. I’ll just say that I am very disappointed.

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15 Responses to Protesting for Teachers’ Rights: A Management View

  1. Virginia says:

    Dear Madison Metropolitan School Board Members:

    I would like to take this opportunity to express my support for the Madison Metropolitan teachers during this time of crisis. My husband and I have two young children in the MMSD district and we stand by the teachers’ decision to protest Governor Walker’s Repair Bill. May the Madison Metropolitan School District teachers continue to stand strong for their rights as teachers. May they continue to proudly represent and express their loyality to the future of their profession and our children.


    The parent of two children in MMSD Elementary School

  2. Alan Bergstrom says:

    Now I think you are being played for the fool. Many of these teachers are my friends and neighbors, too. But no double standards should be applied to their actions versus anyone else’s. As you say, “you do the deed, you pay the fine”. You certainly have covered all of the bases in your “fence sitting” post. We can all hope that when election time rolls around, we remember the role you played in fulfilling or not fulfilling your obligations in carrying out your obligations in upholding the law. Even honorable judges know the role of justice versus personal friendships and opinions.

  3. Bob & Dick Annen says:

    Hi Ed; You sound like a competent, educated, good & fair guy.! But right is right, & those teachers that called in sick had better not get paid.! And I hope you are keeping a alert out on those PHONEY doctors excuses.! Anyone useing one of those should be charged with FRAUD, & if found guilty, be dismissed.! Frienships cannot be used, only legal & just rules.! I personally think Mr. Matthews is the culprut behind all this as he goes way overboard on most issues.! Hopefully this will come to a end this week.! We must remember that Wi. is Broke, & action must be taken.! Thanks, The Annen’s

  4. Becky García says:

    Whereas I certainly understand the uncomfortable position the school closings have put you in, I truly believe that you do not fully understand the extent of the concerns that drive this protest. Although the future of the teachers’ profession is at stake, more importantly, the future of democracy is at stake. The manner in which the Governor has tried to plow this bill through the legislature is anything but democratic. In addition, the mounting evidence that government policy is being, if not dictated, certainly blatantly influenced by corporate interests is a sign that we are headed for a fascist state if this bill is not defeated. Every citizen of this state should be alarmed and protesting at the capitol. I have never been a political activist before.
    I have never engaged in any job action in my 40-year teaching career. But this threat to democracy leaves me with no choice.

  5. Rich says:

    Our family supports this job action even though it has created hardship for us in terms of scheduling and the concerns over lost learning time. We took the time to carefully read the budget repair bill SS SB 11 and realize that the implications of the bill are more profound than what is being reported by the media. The bill will impact everyone, whether represented by a union or not, whether publicly employed or privately employed, and represents the start of a downward spiral for workers of all types within the state. I know the state is “broke” and that didn’t happen overnight (it is one of the things that really upsets me about former Gov. Doyle who when campaigning for his first term said he was going to be careful of…recall he was even considering selling the Gov mansio, cutting 10000 state employees, selling major parts of the vehicle fleet, etc…somehow a significant part of the plan fell apart). Now we have Gov Walker saying we are in a crisis (sounds familiar again) and that concessions are needed to fill the 1.5 billion budget shortfall (which is nearly the exact amount the WisDOT budget alone increased from Gov McCalllum’s term through Gov Doyle’s term). The bottom line is removing collective bargaining rights doesn’t fix any of this. While neither I or my wife are union members, the reality is that all workers have benefited from the fact that there are unions in the state that do fight for their workers. If other states and even nations were as worker strong there wouldn’t be this race to the bottom.

  6. Patrick Lenon says:

    Ed, I have a question on makeup days. When the school year is extended due to snow days or other unscheduled school closings, are those days considered part of the teachers’ normal contract obligation, or do they get additional pay? And what happens to staff like cafeteria and maintenance workers?

    Obviously the reason I ask is due to the situation of some teachers getting “sick pay” during this time (disregarding the ones who had the misfortune of actually getting sick at a time like this). I’m generally supportive of the teachers but I do not think the doctors providing fake sick notes are helping the situation. Really wish they hadn’t gone there, so to speak.

  7. Jerry Todd says:

    Your Superintendent, during his news conference said the district’s first priority is to teach students. Look at the great lesson the protesting teachers taught their students: If there is something in which you disagree, simply lie and call in sick to work or school. Also, news reports showed interviews with high school students who said they were encouraged by teachers to attend the protests; even though the students admitted they didn’t know what the protests were about. They viewed it as a “fun day off from school.” I recall an earlier tyrannical group in Germany that employed youth as “useful idiots” to further their ideals in the 1930’s.

    The strong-arm tactics of the teachers union are unpardonable. First they negotiate for benefits they know are unsustainable. In doing so, they lull teachers into a false sense of security and entitlement. Then when the consequences of their actions come to fruition, they call names, make threats, and whip up their dependent accomplices, the teachers, into an emotional frenzy.

    “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” — Thomas Jefferson.

    Teachers, wake up! The unions have deceived you. They promised you things they are unable to deliver. Instead of accepting responsibilities for their follies, they ask the tax payer to bail them out. You want a pay raise without increasing government spending? Get rid of your union and pocket your union dues.

    Unfortunately, the protesting teachers are ultimately hurting themselves. Rarely does a week go by when some school district doesn’t pull some “politically correct run amok” stunt. This week is Madison School District’s turn. America is BROKE. The tax payer is weary of the nonsense and will begin pressing harder for School Vouchers and dissolution of the Department of Education. When that happens, teachers who place cozy retirements over educating students will be out of their jobs.

  8. karen says:

    I’m a teacher who called in sick W-F….and it was the hardest decision I’ve ever made (….and I’m not providing a Dr. will be docked nearly a $1000.00). I did not call in sick today as I felt, with the state’s furlough day, it was not necessary for Madison’s teachers’ to protest….we were needed, especially in the early going to “kick-start” the protest, and now momentum is finally growing, as other public workers have taken up the slack…..We teachers who gave up our pay are the real heros…..I don’t know how this thing is going to end, but protesting, gave us hope…….hope for maintaining quality schools and a good working environment…..right now we teachers are scared, and emotionally exhausted….not a good mix when teaching!

  9. Jerry Todd says:

    Perhaps it would be better for Wisconsin kids if teachers stayed on strike

  10. Kelly says:

    Jerry, you apparently didn’t read that page very closely. A score of 39 is well above the national average of 33, and in fact, Wisconsin’s NAEP score for 8th grade math puts us above 80% of states, and our scores for science put us above 90%.

    The Wisconsin Fact Checker put those stats in his comment on that article, and provided 4 sound references to national education results to back it up. Don’t ever trust CNS News, they’re right-wing hacks.

    • Jerry Todd says:

      I appreciate your response, and yes I did see that Wisconsin is above the national average of 33% . That’s quite an indictment on the entire Public School system. If only 39 percent of the eighth graders in Wisconsin public schools are proficient or better in mathematics, and Wisconsin is near the top of other states with an average of only 33%; then as a tax payer, I want my money back.

      I understand your concerns about relying on CBN as a source, but they were quoting the Department of Education. So I’m relying on DOE data; CBN happened to be the messenger.

      However, the real problem facing Wisconsin is public sector union bargaining. The Federal government should never have allowed public sector employees the opportunity for union bargaining.

      In the private sector, union reps negotiate with corporate leaders and stockholders. They are held accountable financially because they pay the bills. In the public sector those who pay the bills, the taxpayer, has no say. Unions negotiate with bureaucrats and politicians, are more than willing to give into union’s unsustainable demands because they aren’t accountable and they receive union payoffs in the name of reelection campaign donations.

      Now the consequences of these unsustainable entitlements are coming due and the states and Feds ARE BROKE. In light of that fact, Governor Walker is asking teachers to pay a little higher percentage of their health care and retirement contributions. If teachers agree, the majority of those costs will still be paid by the taxpayer and teacher’s percentage will still be much less than their private sector counterpart. If teachers won’t agree, then the state will be forced to lay off teachers — because there’s NO MORE MONEY!

      Are teachers important? YES! Should they receive adequate pay and benefits? YES! But the unions have made them promises that are unsustainable and as a tax payer I cannot afford it any more, especially when they can show a 39% success rate.

      Finally, for any teachers not willing to spending a little more for health and retirement benefits; I’ll trade you positions straight across, right now, no questions asked! I was laid off nearly two years ago and am still woefully under-employed. I currently have NO health benefits. I currently receive NO retirement contributions.

      The economic situation in this country has changed. We can start NOW to make the hard and painful choices and start turning things around; or we can continue the status quo and accept the even harsher consequences in the near future.

  11. Chris says:

    As usual, Ed, I find your comments thoughtful, evidence of one doing his best to think through these matters in a conscientious way. I’m mostly writing to balance out these comments. This bill will irreparably harm education in Madison–although of course it is simply a preamble to the terrible budget cuts being announced on Tuesday. Because of the bill’s potential to lower the quality of education, I think it makes sense to protest. Yes, closing the schools is a terrible thing, and every teacher felt that acutely. Still, like Karen above, I was out Wednesday – Friday –and don’t know how I’ll pay all of March’s expenses. But to keep education going in the state, I believe that the bill should be stopped in its progress. It was interesting that the State Journal this morning credited MTI’s early actions as helping the momentum of the early protest. Was Monday necessary as well? I don’t know, and I voted against it. But the potential effects of this bill are so terrible and so far-reaching that perhaps it was best we were out, in order to raise the loudest protest possible. The protests have gained national attention and are overall helping galvanize opinion against this governor’s plans. That I take to be a good thing for education in the long run.

    Again–I believe that these are terribly difficult issues, and I appreciate your reflective approach to this trying situation. Thanks for your continued work.

  12. Jerry Todd says:

    I understand the state will now have to pay $7.2 million to cover damages, vandalism and clean up costs incurred by union backed protesters. How does this irreverent behavior help an already financially strapped state? Obviously people have the right to protest, but they also have the responsibility to be civil.

    I’m amazed in light of this much damage, threats against non-AWOL legislators, and the visceral tone of protesters (particularly following Pres. Obama’s plea for a higher standard of civility following the Gifford shooting); that the media is deafeningly silent. Yet this same media routinely paint Tea Party protesters as violent and racist even though no evidence supporting such claims exist.

    • Patrick Lenon says:

      Is this what you’re referring to, Jerry?

      It appears from the comments that a number of people find it difficult to believe that $7.5 million in damage can be attributed to tape residue. There are already offers to clean it up for $7 million less than that. Of course a janitor with a spray bottle may cost even less than that.

      Any media that didn’t report on this hokum did Scott Walker a favor.

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