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September 18, 2006

EIA Exclusive: Affiliation Dispute Lifts Curtain on Wisconsin Teacher Union Politics

We have all heard the story about the married couple who can no longer stand each other, but stay together for the sake of the kids. If there is a teacher union equivalent, it exists in the relationship between the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and its local affiliate, Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI)

An association that has lasted for more than 30 years may or may not dissolve, but it certainly shows no signs of improvement. EIA has reported on the progress of the dispute, and as you read through this communiqué, you might want to refer to these links for further details:

* March 5, 2001 - Mutiny in Madison

* June 9, 2003 - Madison Teachers Union Sues State Affiliate

* December 15, 2003 - Wisconsin Union Denies Madison Agreement Is a Contract

* February 2, 2004 - Wisconsin Union Seeks to Establish Control Over Madison Local

* June 1, 2004 - Relationship Between Wisconsin Union and Madison Local Running on Inertia

* July 18, 2005 - Madison Local Wins Court Appeal Against Wisconsin NEA Affiliate

* January 9, 2006 - Madison Local Wins Court Fight Against Wisconsin NEA Affiliate

The short (?) version goes like this: The relationship between MTI and WEAC is spelled out in an agreement reached in 1978 that grants MTI a large amount of autonomy over its own affairs and commits WEAC to reimbursing any MTI legal expenses. The agreement has no expiration date and no limit on the amount of those expenses. WEAC agreed to these terms because, at the time, Madison was close to disaffiliating, and Milwaukee had already done so.

As the years passed and the state union grew stronger, WEAC officers began to see the MTI agreement as problematic and onerous. In the 2000-01 school year, MTI supplied a casus belli. A group of seven WEAC locals, operating under the umbrella of South Central Education Association (SCEA) wanted eligibility for NEA UniServ funding. Rather than fall in with WEAC's probationary plan, SCEA sought and achieved UniServ status under the aegis of MTI.

WEAC felt MTI had overstepped its authority and, in an effort to punish MTI, unilaterally terminated the 1978 affiliation agreement. MTI claimed WEAC could not take such action, and sought arbitration. WEAC resisted, and MTI sued WEAC to compel arbitration. After losing in county court, MTI won its point in state and federal appeals courts.

From July 18-20, 2006 - more than five years after the SCEA incident - attorneys for MTI and WEAC crossed swords in front of arbitrator Peter Feuille of the University of Illinois. EIA has obtained a copy of the transcript, and the proceedings not only provided a detailed and enlightening look at the history and internal politics of WEAC, but supplied yet more evidence that the bonds of unionism are sometimes composed of dollar bills, and little else.

In the interest of avoiding wild speculation as to how EIA came into possession of the arbitration transcript, let me just say for the record that I burned through the wall of WEAC headquarters with a pocket laser, killed two armed guards with an unsharpened No. 2 pencil, and escaped by diving off the roof while attached to a black hang glider. Here's of photo of me persuading a WEAC staffer to hand over the document.

The arbitrator listened to testimony from witnesses who spoke from personal experience, going as far back as the drafting of the 1978 agreement, and continuing through the MTI-WEAC relationship as it exists today. The transcript runs more than 500 pages.

A key witness was MTI Executive Director John Matthews. Matthews has held that position for more than 38 years - from before WEAC even became a labor union – and spoke first-hand of the history of the affiliation agreement. He contended the agreement grew out of distrust of WEAC's desire to obtain trusteeship powers over its locals, including MTI. Matthews explained MTI's negotiating position in 1978 regarding WEAC.

"You didn't come in here and organize us, we chose to affiliate with you," he said. "You're not going to be telling us what to do. That's the general consensus."

It is clear that the 1978 agreement grew out of fear and mistrust, rather than a realization of mutual benefits. MTI was particularly concerned that WEAC would interfere with the relationship between MTI and its members.

"I said, I'll tell you what, pardon my language, we don't want you fucking with our members," Matthews recalled telling WEAC. "We don't want you sending your fucking newsletter to our members and corrupting their minds."

Despite this hostility, WEAC needed Madison inside its organization, and MTI needed WEAC so that state legislators couldn't play the various teacher union locals against each other. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before WEAC found the legal expenses provision to be particularly burdensome. Matthews testified that in the late 1980s, WEAC Executive Director Morris Andrews offered to buy out that provision for $1 million. Matthews refused and the status quo was maintained.

Periodically, the WEAC board and executives would complain about MTI's legal expenditures over which they had no say, especially if WEAC found a legal action questionable. WEAC's attorneys brought attention to a motion to reconsider the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision in Jackson v. Benson, the case in which the court found the Milwaukee school voucher program to be constitutional.

Despite the fact that the case had been decided in 1998, the motion to reconsider was filed in 2002 – just weeks before U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments in the Zelman v. Harris case, in which the court ultimately found the Ohio school voucher program to be constitutional.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled the motion to be untimely and frivolous, and sanctioned attorney Ed Garvey for filing it. While questioning WEAC General Counsel Bruce Meredith, WEAC's attorneys revealed that, unknown to the public, MTI had hired and paid Garvey to file the motion - an expense WEAC was called upon to reimburse, despite disagreeing with the whole idea. In fact, under the agreement, WEAC is obliged to pay for MTI's lawsuit against WEAC.

Indeed, during cross-examination of Matthews, WEAC tried to expose just how legal decisions were made at MTI.

WEAC attorney: "How does MTI decide which lawyer or law firm will represent it in any given case?"

Matthews: "I decide."

WEAC: "Does the MTI board every get involved in that decision?"

Matthews: "No."

The attorney then asked "How do you make that decision?"

"My thought process," Matthews replied.

MTI countered that many of the cases brought by the Madison local through the years established statewide legal precedence, and provided benefits for WEAC members throughout Wisconsin, including the establishment of domestic partner benefits.

In addition to the problems associated with the legal expenses, MTI and WEAC have significant philosophical differences. Thus, over the years, MTI has acted autonomously on many issues – or as a loose cannon, depending upon whose side you take.

"There were political differences between WEAC and MTI," former MTI President and WEAC board member Jim Skaggs testified. "We had endorsed different candidates in the Democratic primary for governor. There had been long-standing differences of opinion about legislative strategy on various issues. There had been differences of opinion about how the bargaining law should be dealt with in the past and I think that WEAC would have preferred that MTI's relationship with it be more similar to that of locals over which they could exert more control."

Matthews concurred. "Well, it's our opinion that they (WEAC) are not doing the job they're capable of doing and that they've been coasting for about 15 years and that we wouldn't have the revenue controls, we wouldn't have the QEO that are oppressing every educator in this state if they would do their job well," he said.

Peter Gust, the SCEA executive director, also agreed. "I feel like WEAC could be far more effective if they took other actions to get rid of the caps and the QEO, other than the Great Schools program, which is the current WEAC answer to how to get rid of the caps and the QEO. You know, it's a real expensive program. It's got a high priority, but a very - in my opinion, not a very effective track record. You know, the caps are still there, the QEO is still there and millions of dollars have been spent through the Great Schools program to, in my opinion, no avail," he said.

It was in this environment that the controversy erupted over SCEA joining MTI's UniServ region. The backstory is too involved even for EIA to relate in a concise manner, but suffice to say WEAC saw MTI's action as a last straw, deciding to use it as a means to rid itself of the 1978 agreement. Rumors spread that MTI was planning to pick off other WEAC locals in order to create a rival statewide union. Several MTI and SCEA witnesses pooh-poohed that notion.

"At times, it was so funny because you'd go to the WEAC meetings and people would joke with us and say hey, when is MTI going to form a union, we'll jump with you, and we'd just say we're not doing that, it was a joke," said Paula Ferrara-Parrish, who was MTI president during 2000-01.

WEAC used a Northern Tier UniServ newsletter as evidence of MTI's intentions. Apparently the newsletter stated that MTI could "just go down Highway 53 starting in Superior and pick off the weak locals on both sides." MTI attorneys brought some levity by noting that the same issue of the newsletter also reported that "a mole the size of a giant elephant had gotten into (WEAC headquarters) through a construction hole and was carrying off all of the Great School materials. This quickly prompted management to lock the room and declare it a time capsule for future generations."

MTI called the writer, UniServ director Gene Degner, to testify. Degner admitted the newsletter was meant as parody.

SCEA Executive Director Peter Gust testified that WEAC's fear of a rival statewide union was irrational. "It's like this paranoid thing that is going on with some people in WEAC, that they believe that MTI has been working on some kind of incredibly clever Machiavellian plan, sneaking around the state talking to, you know, people that are likely suspects and that suddenly this thing is all going to come together somehow and there's going to be, you know, bam, this gigantic statewide competitor to WEAC and, you know, that's just - it's absolutely untrue,” he said.

Gust felt that WEAC should have been happy about SCEA's affiliation through MTI, because the alternative might have been disaffiliation of his seven locals from WEAC.

"We weren't satisfied with propositions which were being made by WEAC. We didn't feel that those were in our best interests and our goal had not been to quit WEAC, although I'll be honest, I had developed a business plan that if push came to shove, we had a way that we were going to go ahead and dissolve and reform outside of WEAC and NEA, hire our own lawyer and put our shingle out and call ourselves South Central Ed and that's it, skip the association with everybody else," Gust said.

Gust and the SCEA locals realized that such a move might create a precedent for other WEAC locals. "Because amongst ourselves, we had talked about the fact that this is an organizational mine field ready to blow up if the seven locals stay out of a UniServ status or stay out of WEAC all together, it provides a model anybody in the future who has a beef with WEAC to pull out. It wasn't our desire to pull out of WEAC," he testified.

MTI attorneys asked Gust what reason WEAC gave for objecting to SCEA joining with MTI.

"Because John and the rest of MTI are a bunch of fucking radicals, excuse me," Gust said.

Ultimately, SCEA dissolved its relationship with MTI and reconciled with WEAC, but the state union refused to reestablish the old agreement with MTI. Maintaining that the agreement is null and void, WEAC stopped reimbursing MTI's legal expenses. MTI responded by withholding the transmission of state dues in amounts equal to its legal bills. MTI representatives rarely attend WEAC board meetings. In the last two years, MTI has not participated in (or has been banned from, depending on whose side you take) the WEAC Representative Assembly. Matthews described it as "near fracture."

The situation has remained at this impasse, which the arbitrator is supposed to break. His ruling is scheduled to come before the end of the year.

Despite being a party to the 1978 agreement, NEA has not gotten involved in the dispute.

"You have to understand that in recent years, NEA has deferred totally to WEAC to represent them in Wisconsin," Matthews testified. "That's why NEA is not a party to this dispute here. They gave permission to WEAC to represent them here and when I reminded the executive director of NEA that they were a party to this agreement and why should they take sides with one group or another, the poor guy didn't know what I was talking about. He's a person from North Carolina who has no idea about contracts and he walked off."

It is obvious from the days of testimony that MTI wants to remain wedded to WEAC and NEA, but only if the status quo ante is resumed. WEAC, for its part, is in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the affiliation agreement that both parties used for decades is not a binding contract.

MTI and Matthews (who is obviously an old-school union guy) don't accept that interpretation. "The terms of the contract are we will stay affiliated, you pay us our local fees, you follow these terms," he said. "If you don't want to do that, then we're not affiliated. It's plain and simple."

 

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