Madison, WI: Interview with union leader Michael Jones of Madison Teachers, Inc.
On Monday, May 15, Fight Back! interviewed Michael Jones, president of the teachers’ unit with Madison Teachers, Incorporated (MTI), which represents nearly 2700 educators employed by the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), to discuss current conditions and a recent week of action where teachers worked to rule. Fight Back!: How long have you been working in Madison schools?
Michael Jones: I'm finishing up my 14th year in education, my ninth year in MMSD.
Fight Back!: What are the general conditions of work for educators in Madison right now?
Jones: Like many education workers nationally, statewide and locally, our working conditions are extremely challenging and demoralizing. Sometimes, it's building infrastructure, such as being in spaces without proper air conditioning, heating or ventilation. We're also facing a significant shortage of workers in education, from custodial or food service, to education assistants and teachers, to mental health services.
As conditions like increasing class sizes, reduced protected break and prep times, and increasing workloads persist, our veteran workers are leaving either the district or education altogether. And we're not recruiting and retaining new workers because the conditions are so inequitable. On top of all of that, our employer seems to have given up on trying to support and retain workers, rather refusing to invest money because it's seen as a lost cause. This is one of the long-term intended impacts of Scott Walker and Robin Vos’s plan to destroy public education when they undemocratically pushed through Act 10 in 2011.
Fight Back!: You mentioned Act 10. What impact has this and Right to Work legislation had on your union and the workplaces in general?
Jones: In many ways, it's decimated our workers' morale and ability to sustain a livable lifestyle in Wisconsin and Madison. There's the tangible costs of being underpaid tens of thousands of dollars in a late-stage capitalistic society, so people have made unfortunate choices like dropping union membership or leaving the profession for pure financial reasons. Then there's the emotional harm Walker and the Republicans have caused our schools and unions that seems irreparable, at times.
Right or wrong, one's wages reflect how they are valued in their society as a human being. And the messages – through Act 10, through union-busting actions at the state and local levels, and the racist, homophobic, transphobic, misogynist, ableist actions pursued by leaders – to education workers have been clear: you are hated in the very communities you are trying to support and improve. It's not surprising that our system is in crisis — look at the messages we receive!
Fight Back!: What recent conditions specifically led to the week of action during Teacher Appreciation Week?
Jones: Over the past three years, MMSD has underpaid workers below the rate of inflation. Last year, the [Consumer Price Index] was 4.7% and the district only gave 3%. That means all workers took a pay cut since their wages weren't keeping up with inflation, even if the number on paper looked higher. Add to that the deteriorating conditions and the lack of district leadership empathy to our concerns, our workers decided to publicly take a stand on the unpaid, unrecognized and unsupported labor that educators are expected to do outside of our contracted day.
Because our system historically undervalues and underpays educators, because our workers are primarily people with uteruses and they are systemically underpaid in America, society just assumes that all those tests, quizzes, papers, lesson plans, parent and student communications, and professional development tasks can be done after school hours and on the weekends. Our action is to send a loud and clear message that you cannot take workers' labor for granted just because the system historically and culturally does so.
Fight Back!: What are the current demands of the rank-and-file educators?
Jones: We have 3 demands.
A cost-of-living adjustment to the full 8% that the state allows.
That MMSD produces a budget that is student-centered, so cuts or adjustments are not at the cost of cutting school-level positions and increasing class sizes and workloads, which they have proposed in their initial budget.
That workers' autonomous time – breaks and preps – are protected instead of workers being forced to do unnecessary and time-consuming tasks that do little to improve student achievement and are meant to leverage power from the top to the bottom.
Fight Back!: So what's next for the educators with MTI?
Jones: We are still in the planning stages of subsequent actions, but given the district's lack of interest in moving forward on a just budget, we anticipate our job actions to continue throughout the summer and fall, when students will be coming into school. A lot of unpaid and unrecognized labor goes into preparing for the next school year. If workers set limits on that unrecognized work, it would throw a wrench in administration's plans.
Fight Back!: How can people support MTI in its present and future struggles?
Jones: Thank you for asking. We are asking community members to engage the five actions in the online document that has been posted. This includes signing our petition, contacting the MMSD Board of Education, subscribing and sharing our social media outreach, and speaking up for workers.
Fight Back!: Looking ahead and beyond these immediate fights, would MTI be interested in collaborating with other unions and progressive community and student organizations from across the state to renew the fight against anti-labor laws like Act 10 and Right to Work?
Jones: We are ready and willing to work with all stakeholders for a more just society! We lead an education justice coalition to address school food security with community and student groups. And we financially and systemically support social justice organizations and unions allied with our values. We can do this work when we are connected and know we are not alone in the struggle!