After 44 years as the face of Madison Teachers Inc., John Matthews is once again leading the union’s membership through a major fight. Although it’s been nearly a year since the state Supreme Court cleared the way for Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s budget bill that shook the foundations of public worker unions, legal arbiters are still surveying the landscape.

Meanwhile, a resurgence of community protest over the troubling performance of students of color in the Madison School District has put teacher performance under scrutiny. As voters prepare to map the way ahead in a gubernatorial recall election, Matthews is at work in the trenches on what he says the job is all about: “Helping people get of out difficult situations.”

To do it, he calls on a knack with people, contacts built over decades around and across the bargaining table and beyond, and an abiding taste for the battle. Here Matthews talks about making it work the way unions work now.

Cap Times: So how has life changed under Act 10 for MTI and the teachers you represent?

John Matthews: Our five contracts run through June 13, 2013, but we had to make some sacrifices in order to make that happen. One of the things was, people had told us several years ago in response to our bargaining survey: “We want acupuncture.” And we had a WPS (health insurance) contract nobody else had, and it was expensive, but we carved money out of wages in order to keep it because the membership wanted it. Then along comes Scott Walker and the right wing and the school district says, ‘We’re taking WPS,’ (removing it as an option) but the quid pro quo, the little bit of wage we carved off every year, we lost it -- it was just gone.

CT: In this climate, a lot of people might say: “Acupuncture, I can’t get that paid for. Too bad, teachers.” A lot of workers have seen what they used to have cut back.

JM: There was a member of the bargaining team who was treated for breast cancer. After we lost the WPS contract, she came to me and said: ‘I don’t know about losing acupuncture, I never lost a day of work with the chemotherapy because I got acupuncture the same day.’ That pays big benefits not only for the kids, but for the school district, who never had to pay for a substitute teacher.

CT: And people outside unions don’t see the ways they benefit from them?

JM: “I think the right wing really has been effective in the way they approach these things. The corporations beat up on private sector unions, and they forced them into, instead of having a defined benefit plan, having a 401(k) and they put in 2 percent or 3 percent. United Auto Workers used to have health insurance after retirement and a pension system; they don’t have those things anymore. The right wing says to private workers, “You don’t have that, why should public sector workers have that?” They really pitted two groups of people against each other, and some have turned on each other.

CT: With public workers, people who don’t have the benefits are saying: “I’m paying for it.”

JM: That’s true, and I pay for what the auto workers have when I buy a car.

CT: You put the source of this envy of public sector workers and their benefits on the “right wing?”

JM: What they did was convince a lot of people to vote against their own interests.

CT: In Madison, the issue of the academic achievement gap has re-emerged, right on top of the controversy over collective bargaining. What do you think is the average Madisonian’s impression of Madison School District teachers?

JM: “I think they support us in collective bargaining -- it was passed by two-thirds in the Dane County referendum that public workers should have collective bargaining. The achievement gap is very, very complex, but people have a very knee-jerk reaction. Poverty is the issue, and poverty is growing in Madison. Research shows that if you have over 40 percent poverty in a school, you’re going to have a significant achievement gap. Unless you can find some way to even the income out so that everybody has got what they need to succeed, I think we’re dreaming if we think we can close the achievement gap.

CT: Are you saying the schools can’t do anything until poverty is eliminated?

JM: We have kids who get to school and they haven’t eaten anything. They don’t care about two plus two.

CT: Of course, many children in the Madison School District get breakfast and lunch at school, so they’ve got something in their bellies.

JM: We have breakfast and lunch programs, but when you get up into the high numbers of kids who have reduced or free lunch, the achievement gap is larger in those schools. And we have a lot of kids in Madison schools, when they get home at 4 o’clock, there’s nothing to eat.

CT: What about the training and capabilities of Madison school teachers and how they deliver in the classroom day to day -- is there room for improvement there?

JM: Well, there’s always room for improvement -- there’s room for improvement in what I do. I can only say that the Madison School District has invested all kinds of things in professional development. One thing teachers tell us if they have time to work together, they can make strides. I found early in my career if I’m having a teacher identified as having a performance problem, ask the principal who is the best at doing what they want this teacher to do. Then you go to that teacher and say: “You have a colleague who needs help, will you take them under your wing?” I don’t have access to any of what they talk about, management doesn’t have access to that -- it’s been a remarkably successful venture.

CT: In discussion of the achievement gap in Madison I’ve heard from African-American parents up and down the economic spectrum who say that their children are met at school with low expectations that really hamper their performance.

JM: I’ve heard that too. The Madison School District has an agreed-upon mandatory cultural course that people have to take. But there are people in society who don’t like to be around other races. I don’t see that when teachers are together. And we have a variety of people who are leaders in MTI -- either Asian or Indian or black -- but there are people who have different expectations from people who are different from them.

CT: Does the union have a role in dealing with teachers whose lowered expectations of students of color might contribute to the achievement gap?

JM: The only time MTI would get involved is if somebody was being criticized for that, we’d likely be involved with that; if someone were being disciplined for that, we would be involved. We’ve not seen that.

CT: Do you think there were parts of the Urban League’s proposal for the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school -- like uniforms and rigorous standards -- that would have helped with the achievement gap?

JM: Personally I don’t think that’s the way to educate kids -- that tough, regimented type of thing. It’s like sending your kid off to military school.

CT: What about the longer school day, longer school year, would that help?

JM: A longer day, absolutely. I’ll be working with (Mayor) Paul Soglin on that issue -- what do we do to keep kids in a productive environment? I told him we have to have people who are professionals with the skills to work with the kids -- just warehousing them isn’t going to do it.

CT: Isn’t the city rife with after-school programs?

Discover Madison news, via the Cap Times

Sign up for the Cap Times Daily Features email!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

JM: Yeah, it irritates the hell out of me. They’re run by the Madison School and Community Recreation program. Some of them employ teachers -- that’s much better for the kids -- but then let’s pay the teachers correctly. They have Madison Rec do it, because then they don’t have to pay per the contract.

CT: Wouldn’t paying contract wages make it even harder to develop more of the kind of after-school program you’d like to see?

JM: It’s an added expense, but it’s worth it. The kids will gain the academic skills they need to succeed, and with education we have people who earn more money and have more money to fuel the economy. What did Scott Walker get when he forced employees to pay 12.8 percent of their salaries to health insurance and 5.6 percent to retirement? What he got was $1 billion taken out of circulation in the state economy.

CT: The proposed Madison School District budget for next year calls for a 4.1 percent hike in school property taxes, even without a proposed $12.4 million in new spending to start working on the achievement gap. Will doing this require teachers to make concessions?

JM: I think 4.1 percent certainly is within reason; something the community has to assess is whether this is a good investment or not. You’re buying a product that’s going to pay off big-time in the long run. We don’t want to try to do it on the cheap.

CT: Madison teachers haven’t yet felt the full impact of what is possible under the new state law, correct?

JM: Our people now pay more in health premiums than they paid before, but the school district said they would not go beyond what they were forced to do. That would have been very hurtful to a lot of district employees, particularly the lower-paid employees like educational assistants.

CT: And the teachers’ salary schedule is frozen, and only cost-of-living raises can be negotiated?

JM: The schedule is frozen through June 2013, but WERC (the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission) just ruled that Walker’s Act 10 says that academic achievement and experience don’t count and can’t be part of the salary schedule for determining future wages. This shocked the hell out of me. And WERC said the school board can take the money from the cost-of-living raise and use it however they want; they can give all the money to the new teacher, or give a bonus to one person. That’s really bizarre and unfair. No more collectivism.

CT: If you need to renegotiate next year under Act 10, what will you push for?

JM: The only thing we can negotiate is the increase on the base. This contract? It’ll be one page. We can’t even solve problems today -- a teacher calls and needs to be out sick, we used to get teachers to donate sick leave; can’t do that anymore.

CT: That argues against the need for a union.

JM: Oh yeah, some people want to give up. But MTI has been very solidly supported over the years; I don’t think it’s on the line.

CT: MTI didn’t endorse in the gubernatorial primary. What do you see as your role in the general election?

JM: Walker won by 125,000 votes; 812,000 people voted in 2008 who did not vote in 2010. Of those, 62,000 were in Dane County. My plan is everyone becomes responsible to take five people to the polls. MTI becomes very important.