What’s Bugging John Matthews?

In an article about teacher retirements in the State Journal a couple of weeks ago, Madison Teachers Inc. Executive Director John Matthews had some harsh comments about the Madison school district and school board. Referring to the Teacher Emeritus Retirement Program, or TERP, Matthews said, “The evidence of the ill will of the board of education and superintendent speaks for itself as to why we have grave concern over the benefit continuing. . . .  They tore things from the MTI contract, which they and their predecessors had agreed for years were in the best interest of the district and its employees.”

In an article in Isthmus last week, Lynn Welch followed up with Matthews.  Matthews comes out swinging against the school district in this article as well, asserting, “The bargaining didn’t have to [involve] so much animosity. . . .  If they wanted to make revisions, all they had to do is talk with us and we could have worked through something that would be acceptable to both sides. But they didn’t bother to talk about it. You don’t buy good will this way.”  While the contract includes very significant economic concessions on the part of the teachers, Matthews expressed unhappiness with the non-economic changes as well, labeling them “inhumane.”

In the Isthmus article, Matthews asserts that the changes in the collective bargaining agreement “show how Walker’s proposed legislation (still tied up in court) has already produced an imbalance of power forcing unions to make concessions they don’t want to achieve a contract deal.”

The Isthmus article also quotes me saying that in the grander scope of things, the contract changes are fairly minor.  I should offer one point of clarification.  I was referring to the non-economic changes in the collective bargaining agreement, not the changes in the economic terms, which are certainly not minor.  These include a two-year wage freeze, contributions toward retirement plans equaling about 5.5% of a teacher’s salary, increased contributions toward the cost of health insurance, and elimination of the WPS health insurance option in the second year of the contract.

I don’t know what is behind John Matthews’ verbal offensive, but I do have some thoughts about his comments.  

First, it is indisputably the case that the budget repair bill shifted bargaining power towards school districts and away from teachers’ unions.  Unions felt an existential need to agree on a new contract and so forestall the applicability of the legislation’s draconian provisions, while school districts didn’t have to do anything.  This meant that school districts held a much stronger hand in bargaining than any time in the past.  Similarly, though to a much lesser extent, changes made to the state’s arbitration law under Governor Doyle shifted bargaining power toward the unions.  What constitutes an “imbalance” of bargaining power is certainly in the eye of the beholder.

Second, the school district did not attempt to exploit all the (perhaps temporary) bargaining power we probably had.  There wasn’t any real question that any new contract would contain economic concessions that resembled those in the budget repair bill.  (Remember all the “It’s Not About the Money” signs and buttons?)  Our new agreement with MTI does contain those concessions, which certainly are substantial. 

But as I stated in Isthmus, I think the other changes to the agreement are relatively minor.  

For example, the change to planning time for elementary school teachers has received some attention.  As I understand it, the thrust of this change is that attendance can now be mandatory at professional development meetings and other planned collaborative undertakings that take place after early release on Monday afternoons.  Prior to the change, except for a monthly staff meeting, early release time on Monday afternoons was considered planning time for teachers, which meant that they could choose whether or not to attend meetings.

The new contract language states:

Commencing July 1, 2011, the use of the Monday Early Release time will be determined collaboratively at the building level between the principal and the leadership team each spring for the following school year.  If a decision regarding the use of Monday Early Release time cannot be reached by May 1st, the principal may decide how such time will be used.  Monday Early Release time will be used for educational purposes including, but not limited to, professional development, parent-teacher conferences, individual planning time, data analysis, progress monitoring, team planning, staff meetings, analyzing student work and problem solving.   

To my mind, the whole point of Monday early release time is to provide an opportunity for teachers to work together on collaborative initiatives, whether grade-wide or school-wide.  The idea that teachers could simply opt out of such collaboration seemed to defeat the purpose of sending students home early to provide the Monday afternoon time.  So of course the schools should be able to determine how that time will be spent. 

Isthmus quotes John Matthews as saying that as a result of this change teachers will have less flexibility in setting their work hours.  I suppose that’s true.  Is the change “inhumane”?  Give me a break. 

The other changes to the agreement are of the same type.  They’re not earth-shattering and seem particularly modest in comparison with the changes in collective bargaining agreements demanded by other school districts, like those in Green Bay and Middleton-Cross Plains. 

Of course, there is a school district bargaining approach that could fairly be labeled antagonistic: not to agree to extend collective bargaining agreements at all.  This is likely to lead to the implementation of the provisions eviscerating collective bargaining that are in the budget repair bill.  Many school districts are following that strategy.  Here in Madison, we worked hard to avoid that outcome. 

Third, it’s significant that the School Board isn’t likely to exercise the full authority the changes in the collective bargaining agreement provide us.  The agreement authorizes the Board to require next year additional 5% contributions from teachers towards the cost of their health insurance.  We’re not going to insist on this, because we think we can get to a balanced budget without it. 

Similarly, a change in the collective bargaining agreement eliminated the requirement that occupational therapists in the school district work in partnership with occupational therapist assistants.  With the change, the administration determined it would be more efficient for the district to replace our occupational therapy assistants with a smaller number of newly-hired occupational therapists.  The administration projected that this change would save the District about $370,000 next year.  However, it would also require us to lay off our occupational therapy assistants, who have served the District well for many years.  The Board voted to reject the administration’s proposal.

So, it is hard to understand what is prompting John Matthews’ outspoken ire at the moment.  It may be that from MTI’s perspective, who gets to make a decision is more important than what decision is made.  It is troubling to the union that under the new agreement the school district has a broader range of authority over the operations of the schools, and it may also be somewhat discomfiting that the district isn’t trying to use that authority to disadvantage teachers to the full extent possible. 

The union draws support from conveying the impression that it’s only the efforts of the union and the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement that protect teachers from the predations of a “hostile” school board intent on imposing  “inhumane” changes in working conditions.  It does not serve the union’s interests when the union loses some of its power and things don’t seem to get worse for teachers as a result.

The collective bargaining process is useful because it provides an established framework for hammering out issues of mutual concern between the school district and its employees and for conflict resolution.  However, if the collective bargaining agreement were to disappear, the school district wouldn’t immediately resort to a management equivalent of pillaging the countryside.  Instead, the district would seek out alternative ways of achieving the ends currently served by the collective bargaining process, because the district, like nearly all employers, values its employees and understands the benefits of being perceived as a good place to work.

But when employers aren’t interested in running sweat-shops, organizations set up to prevent sweat-shop conditions aren’t all that necessary.  It may be that John Matthews’ ramped-up rhetoric is best understood not as a protest against school district over-reaching in bargaining, since that did not happen, but as a cry against the possibility of his own impending irrelevance.

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3 Responses to What’s Bugging John Matthews?

  1. David Cohen says:

    Amen brother!

  2. RJN says:

    Wow! Well said. The sooner our public school teachers recognize this, the better for everyone in this community; however, that is only if we are continually lucky enough to have board members such as yourself.

  3. As a MMSD teacher, I’m appalled that you are making decisions for me and my students. If you can’t understand a simple concept such as unions, how are you able to make fair decisions? You are not a teacher. You have no idea how changing the school day and planning time has a HUGE effect on learning. But you will be informed on Monday. You will hear many stories. MTI isn’t about protecting us from ‘sweatshop conditions’ and the analogy is insulting. This blog post is insulting and I am disgusted. I hope you read my e-mail I sent the board as well as the MANY other e-mails I’m sure you have received from parents and teachers alike. Bring your listening ears to the BOE meeting Monday, Mr. Hughes!

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