The Madison Metropolitan School District committed “prohibited practices” by surveying union-represented employees about wages leading up to the 2021-22 school year, a Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission ruling determined.
The ruling, issued Jan. 4, is a win for Madison Teachers Inc., which filed the prohibited practice complaint in May 2021 over a survey sent to all staff twice. The survey asked staff to respond to the question, “How adequate is the proposed 3.23% wage increase for the average employee?” with five multiple-choice response options.
Because the survey was also sent to staff represented by MTI in base wage negotiations with the district, WERC examiner Peter Davis found the district violated the state statute that forbids a municipal employer from refusing “to bargain collectively with a representative of a majority of its employees in an appropriate collective bargaining unit.”
The district was ordered to “immediately cease and desist from communication as to base wages” with employees MTI represents in collective bargaining, “except if it wishes to convey a base wage offer that has been previously provided to MTI.” MMSD also had to send a copy of the WERC decision to all MTI-represented employees.
“Doubly disappointing is that MTI and MMSD were able to jointly create an Employee Handbook that honors a good faith working relationship built on collaboration and consensus building,” MTI executive director Jeff Knight said in a press release. “We hope this ruling persuades MMSD to return to that model for the good of its employees and the students they serve.”
MMSD spokesperson Tim LeMonds wrote in an email that the district had no comment on the WERC decision.
According to the press release, sent by attorney Tamara Packard on behalf of MTI, the union filed its complaint after the survey was sent the first time, but the district sent the survey a second time anyway. Packard said in the release that “local institutions and elected officials should not attempt to further silence the collective voice of its employees.”
“It is unfortunate that the public school district in Madison, Wisconsin has engaged in a pattern of bypassing and undermining employee unions,” Packard said in the release. “Wisconsin’s public sector labor unions and their members have suffered greatly under decade-old union busting laws.”
Seven MMSD staff also filed a lawsuit against the district in June 2021 over a contract dispute. No decision has been issued in the case.
According to Davis’ January WERC decision, the district contended “that because it did not actually engage in bargaining with individuals represented by MTI, it should not be held to have violated its duty to bargain with MTI.” Davis rejected that “as an unrealistically narrow view of the collective bargaining process.”
“When an employer surveys union-represented employees as to a mandatory subject of bargaining, it is bypassing and undermining the labor organization selected by the employees to collectively bargain over that subject,” Davis wrote. “It is the labor organization’s role to seek any needed employee input on a mandatory subject of bargaining-not the employer’s.”
He also rejected as irrelevant the district’s assertion that “it had no intent to violate any duty to bargain,” as it had the “impact” of undermining MTI’s role, even if that was not the intent.
Other MMSD arguments detailed in Davis’ decision included that the district did not utilize the survey when formulating its bargaining position, that the survey sought input into the budget and had many components and that MTI had not objected to similar surveys in the past.
Davis rejected each of those arguments.
2020 complaints, settlement
One of the two 2020 complaints centered on another survey sent to staff related to base wages.
The two-question survey sent out late in the 2019-20 school year asked staff how they would prefer the district deal with an anticipated $5 million to $9 million in additional budget cuts for the 2020-21 school year. The response options were to freeze most compensation increases in the budget, including base wage, or to eliminate 92 full-time equivalent positions while keeping wage increases intact.
MTI alleged the question violated state law, which forbids the district from bargaining over base wages with anyone other than MTI’s chosen bargaining teams, according to that complaint. MTI also called the elimination of 92 FTE positions a threat of “reprisal if MTI does not agree to forego base wage increases for the coming school year.”
The second 2020 complaint followed a November newsletter sent to staff that stated a 0.5% base wage increase had been ratified by the School Board and MTI.
The district acknowledged in the settlement that MTI represented staff in base wage negotiations and that it had “mistakenly made a false statement” in that newsletter communication.
“Although the Board of Education had passed a budget with a 0.5% base wage increase, and MMSD unilaterally implemented it, MTI had neither agreed to nor ratified that outcome,” the settlement states.