Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke’s vote Thursday to reopen contract negotiations with the Madison teachers union thrust her onto a volatile political high wire.
On one side, Republicans are criticizing her support for a collective bargaining system mostly outlawed by Gov. Scott Walker. On the other side, union members, whose enthusiasm for her campaign will be crucial in the fall, are watching closely.
“She’s walking the tight line between being pro-business and pro-labor,” said UW-La Crosse political science professor Joe Heim. “That’s a very touchy issue — whatever she might gain, she could lose.”
Burke said Friday she voted to enter negotiations because she supports collective bargaining, a position she staked out earlier in the campaign.
“I feel that this is the best way to come to an understanding on the changes needed to move forward with the district’s strategic plan and improve student learning,” Burke said.
She declined to respond to a statement from Republican Party of Wisconsin executive director Joe Fadness, that her vote was “a payoff to the big unions that recently endorsed her” and “a desperate attempt to shore up the base that dislikes her.”
“My School Board vote is about what is best for Madison and the Madison Metropolitan School District,” Burke said.
She was elected to the board in 2012 in her first bid for public office. She had previously served as commerce secretary under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and was an executive at her family’s company, Trek Bicycle.
Madison Teachers Inc. executive director John Matthews said Burke’s vote was expected, based on her statements about collective bargaining, but it has broader implications.
“People will see her as standing up for what, as a candidate, she says she will do — and that she is in the corner of the working people,” Matthews said. “That certainly will be true for not only the members of MTI but for working people — especially union members throughout Wisconsin.”
Matthews added that Burke has been endorsed by several unions including MTI, AFL-CIO Wisconsin, AFSCME, WEAC and AFT.
Ed Miller, a UW-Stevens Point political science professor, said with the state so severely divided over collective bargaining, Burke wouldn’t gain much support by voting against the unions, but she could increase turnout among Democrats by standing up for labor.
“They may be more willing to go out and work for her and turn out for her,” Miller said. “If she just takes middle positions, it’s not going to alienate anybody, but she’s going to have trouble getting out her base.”
Heim disagreed, noting Burke is still in the process of defining herself in the eyes of the average voter.
“These kinds of things will help define her image,” Heim said.
The Madison School Board is one of the few public bodies in the state still discussing union contracts as they existed prior to the passage of Act 10 in 2011. Almost all other school districts now operate under employee handbooks devised by school boards, often with input from employees.
MTI filed one of several lawsuits against the anti-union law, which Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas largely struck down. The ruling has been under appeal for more than a year and the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to issue a final decision on the case soon.
Since Act 10 effectively ended collective bargaining for public employees, the Madison School Board has extended the MTI union contract three times. The first came before the law took effect and the last two came after Colas’ decision.
Republicans have been watching Burke’s votes carefully on the School Board, including her lone vote against this year’s district budget, which included a 3.38 percent property tax increase. In 2012, she voted for the budget and a 1.75 percent increase in property taxes, the maximum amount allowed under the state’s revenue limits.
The School Board has just started crafting a spending plan for 2014-15.
But the collective bargaining issue could be particularly thorny. One conservative group has threatened to file a lawsuit against the School District on behalf of taxpayers if the School Board extends the contract again.
“If the Supreme Court overturns Judge Colas’ decision, then his declaratory ruling in MTI v. Walker would become null and void — as if it never existed,” lawyer Rick Esenberg of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty wrote to the School Board. “If the (collective bargaining agreement) is unlawfully extended, then every taxpayer in Madison would have a valid claim arising from the illegal expenditure of tax dollars, and every teacher in Madison would have a valid claim for violation of their rights.”