Emails Reveal Madison Teachers’ Union Behind the Scenes Strategy

MacIver News Service | April 15, 20111

[Madison, Wisc…] Madison school official and union leaders did not enjoy the cozy relationship protesters at the Capitol portrayed to the media, according to an open records request by the MacIver Institute.

The MacIver News Service examined emails between MMSD Superintendent Dan Nerad and his staff and MTI Executive Director John Matthews.  Many of the emails concerned the teacher sick out and how the district would make up the days.

The tone of their conversations often broke from civility.  At one point, Matthews chewed out Nerad for visiting his sick mother in a Kenosha hospital instead of negotiating with MTI over the make up days.

The following account offers some insight into what was going on behind the scenes as protests raged around the Capitol.

Tuesday, February 15th

The first massive protests began at the Capitol on Tuesday, February 15th, after Governor Walker announced his budget repair bill limiting collective bargaining the Friday before.  Madison school officials had received indications teachers intended on staging a sick out starting the next day.

Bob Nadler, the human resources director, sent an email to teachers warning them not to do it.  For employees who were genuinely sick, they would need documentation from a doctor.

“If you do not provide this documentation, you will not be allowed to use personal or family illness leave and your pay will be docked,” Nadler wrote.

John Matthews responded, “Yikes, people who are ill and you threaten them?”

(Later, in April, it was learned MTI organized these sickouts through a voicemail message leaked to conservative talk radio show host Vicki McKenna)

Later that day, Dan Nerad reached out to Matthews, asking him to discourage the sick out, while stating the importance the two men work together and support one another in the days ahead.

Matthews wrote back stating the protest was already having an impact and “what teachers are doing is based on their own conscience, for education, the children in our schools, for their own families.”

MTI’s March 4th newsletter later explained “Tuesday night, MTI Faculty Representative Council met in the largest meeting in several years and made recommendation that all MTI members report to the Capitol all day on Wednesday, rather that to school.”

Wednesday, February 16th

The Madison Metropolitan School District was forced to cancel school on February 16th after teachers staged a sick out so they could participate in protest rallies at the Capitol.  According to emails, it would appear Nerad made the decision late Tuesday night.  Matthews was frustrated he was not told right away.

“Sorry that you could not show the same professional courtesy I showed you.  Not only did I call you as I told you I would, but I interrupted my press conf to take your call.  You pledged to call me when you decided whether to cancel school today.  You failed to do so.  That’s unfortunate,” Matthews wrote to Nerad.

Nerad apologized, “I was concerned that it was so late.  I asked Bob to copy you in on the written communication to let you know what we were doing.”

To that, Matthews only wrote “BS.”

Thursday, February 17th

The sick out continued on Thursday, February 17th.

Text messages began flying around the district claiming that if teachers decided to return to work on Monday, there would be no disciplinary action.  Ken Sykes, the district’s spokesman, sent out an email saying that was not true.

Matthews responded that Sykes was mistaken.  Matthews said a school board member told him the board voted unanimously not to discipline teachers if they returned to work on Monday.

Friday, February 18th

Madison schools were closed for a third straight day.  The district went to court that afternoon seeking an injunction to force the teachers back to work.  Judge Maryann Sumi sided with the union.  Read more about that by clicking here.

Sunday, February 20th

Madison schools had been closed for three days, when Gretchen Forbes, a school nurse, wrote to Nerad about her concerns over public relations.  She felt if the schools didn’t reopen soon, the protesting teachers would lose a lot of public support.

“Remember that the other side are masters of spin, who own large segments of the news media and care nothing for the truth. They have mastered the use of inciting fear and panic. Fearful panicked people do not think, they listen to the loudest voice and do what it says,” Forbes said. “Out of curiousity I have watched Fox News.  They have been stating that the average teacher in WI makes $100,000 and that there are signs with Walker and Targets on them at the rallies. Now having been there in person, I know both statements are false, however the grandma in Boise doesn’t. Right now we have strong support from our parents, I have seen many of my students parents at the rally supporting us.  This won’t last either if we can’t get schools open.”

Monday, February 21st

Madison schools were closed for a fourth straight day on Monday.  Nerad called Matthews in the morning to talk about how the district could make up the days.

Matthews responded, “MTI cannot deal with this issue today, because, for sometime, we have had PAC interviews scheduled for this aft and eve.”

Tuesday, February 22nd

Madison schools finally reopened after being closed for four days of teacher sickouts.

Friday, February 25th

Before the protests began, Friday was marked as a staff development day so teachers could attend an SWEIO conference at Monona Terrace. The district sought to cancel that and hold classes instead, to start making up the sickout days. The union insisted the day remain as staff development.

In MTI’s March 4th newsletter, the union explained, “with Madison schools closed for SWEIO, thousands of MTI members again protested at the Capitol at noon and after the SWEIO Convention.”

However, a MacIver News Service report that day discovered most teachers signed into the conference in the morning and immediately left to protest.

Wednesday, March 2nd

While trying to work with the union after the four day sickout, Nerad was also dealing with a personal issue.

“My mother is gravely ill in a hospital in Kenosha.  I am leaving soon to be with her.  Please work with Bob on any counters to our proposal on school make up and bargaining.  I will be in touch with Bob throughout the day.  Sue is available in my absence as well,” Nerad wrote to Matthews.

Matthews then told union members MMSD was not willing to meet on Friday or Sunday.

Wednesday, March 9th.

Nerad was floored when he found out Matthews was telling the union MMSD was not willing to meet that past weekend.  He said Matthews never confirmed a meeting with them.

Howard Bellman, the arbitrator, responded that he had suggested to Nerad they meet sometime over the weekend.  Nerad said he wasn’t available until Tuesday, and Bellman relayed that to the union.

Matthews then sent Nerad an email stating “Dan: I know that you are dealing with your Mother’s illness at this time, and I respect that.  However, for MMSD to not be prepared to deal with the issues facing both MMSD and MTI (your employees) today is reprehensible.”

Later that day the Senate passed an amended version of the budget repair bill, and Nerad wondered if he could expect his staff to report to work on Thursday.

Matthews responded the union asked all teachers to go to work in the morning.  He also pushed for a contract agreement for MTI’s support staff groups.

“You have to know that our negotiations are at a very serious juncture.  We simply must reach an agreement on Friday or the volcano may just erupt.  It is not fair to those in the support unites to be treated differently than those in the professional unit.  Because AFSCME took an inferior contract is no reason for MTI to do so.  This matter is clearly in your hands to resolve, so be fair, creative and decisive.  We have no time left to wring our hands.  It is very difficult to hold people back from taking further action,” said Matthews.