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John Matthews of MTI: A Lion in Winter
John Matthews has run Madison's teachers union for 40 years. Is it time for a change?
Matthews: 'I have what
to me is the best job in the world.'
Matthews: 'I have what to me is the best job in the world.'
Credit:Michael Forster Rothbart

John Matthews planned to sneak out of an educational policy speech at the UW-Madison after giving some introductory remarks. He hoped to make it home by dinnertime.

Instead, the veteran executive director of Madison Teachers Inc. was still there after the speech, sponsored in part by MTI. He was so impressed by the speaker, Richard Rothstein, that he bought 12 copies of Rothstein's book and sent an email recommending it to Madison school board members.

The book, Class and Schools, explores the broader social and cultural influences behind the racial and income achievement gaps in public schools. Rothstein documents the disparities between children's out-of-school experiences, based on their family's income and education. Even by age 3, kids from nonprofessional families have a measurable deficit in vocabulary recognition - a pattern that only gets worse as they grow older, affecting public schools from kindergarten on.

Matthews, who holds one of the most important if less visible jobs influencing the quality of Madison's public schools, finds this alarming and significant. "Why don't our policy makers do something about this?" he bellows.

In a few weeks, Matthews will celebrate his 40th anniversary as executive director of MTI, a union representing 5,500 teachers, secretaries and educational assistants. He's amassed admirers in many circles, from employees whose interests he zealously protects to public officials who've courted and relied on his support.

"I've never come across a union leader with the tenacity of John Matthews," says Ed Garvey, a former labor leader and Democratic Party nominee for U.S. Senate and Wisconsin governor. "He's a throwback to a different era and gives you confidence that good things are still happening in organized labor."

But while Matthews laments the failures of government to improve teaching and learning, he glosses over his own pivotal role in local educational leadership. That role includes standing in the way of programs like 4-year-old kindergarten that could help the district meet its educational objectives.

Beginning in the next few weeks, a school board made up mostly of rookies will begin to address the challenges ahead. A new superintendent starting July 1 - Daniel Nerad, formerly top dog in Green Bay - inspires hope of new solutions to nagging problems. But the third pillar of power is John Matthews. He's been around the longest and arguably knows the most.

Already, Matthews has cemented his legacy from building a strong, tough union. But now, some are wondering if Matthews will also leave behind a legacy of obstructing key educational change.


Nearly a decade ago, Matthews told The Capital Times he'd like his tenure as local union boss to extend as long as Art Rainwater was superintendent.

Now he's seeking an extension.

"I have what to me is the best job in the world," Matthews says. "I wouldn't know what to do with myself if I retired. I would absolutely go stir crazy."

He allows that he may even last through the tenure of yet another superintendent. Nerad is 56.

"I don't want to say absolutely, but I have no thoughts about retirement," Matthews says. "It's just foreign to me."

At 68, Matthews is engaging, gregarious and full of passion. In a long interview, he leaps from his chair and makes grand gestures as he richly recounts old battles that solidified his reputation for doggedness.

In 1976, a teachers strike established him as a powerful player. He won a six-year lawsuit against the Wisconsin Educational Association Council to force WEAC to foot many of MTI's legal bills.

And then there's Matthews' war with former Superintendent Cheryl Wilhoyte, which ended with Wilhoyte being fired in 1999 and Matthews declaring victory. (Matthews confesses to disliking Wilhoyte from day one. "I liked the guy from the Iowa," he quips.)

Matthews is no shrinking violet. He drops the f-bomb nearly a dozen times and sprinkles his more entertaining stories with other verbiage from George Carlin's famous "seven dirty words" satire.

"He might not be as inflammatory in the last 20 years as he was in the first 20," says former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who has lunch Matthews twice a month. "The conversation is worth it," says Soglin of these encounters. "He's insightful. He's always thinking. He's always listening."

Matthews grew up in Helena, Mont., in a politically active family of New Deal Democrats. His grandfather was a Montana Supreme Court justice and his father the state budget director. As a kid he'd play football on the capitol lawn and hang out in the Supreme Court chambers.

He says his outrage at injustice, still a deep motivator, developed here.

Matthews attended a small Catholic college in Helena and explored becoming a priest before concluding that he "liked women better than the seminary." (Matthews has five grown children, two stepchildren and 11 grandkids. His wife of 25 years, Barbara, is a retired investigator with the Department of Justice and president of the Friends of Fitchburg Library.)

After getting hired as a history and English teacher in 1962 - and immediately becoming involved in its union on health insurance matters - Matthews "started raising a little hell" in contract negotiations. A group of young male teachers, a rarity in the 1960s, "started pushing for more pay because we have families and need to provide for them."

Matthews found deep satisfaction in fighting for teachers' rights, and in 1968 was hired as executive director of the Madison teachers union. At the time, he was in the middle of a campaign for the Montana House of Representatives, and his name remained on the primary ballot despite his withdrawal. He makes sure to mention that he won.

Getting things done

At any given time, MTI's four labor-relations specialists, each with either a law degree or master's in labor, handle hundreds of cases that Matthews reviews weekly. "A lot of what we do is like Granny knitting an afghan," he says. "It's piece by piece by piece."

Matthews has been undeniably successful achieving what unions are supposed to do: raise pay, improve working conditions and protect job security. And his shop is remarkably attentive to its members.

"I don't think there's anybody in Wisconsin who's done a better job representing teachers in collective bargaining and in grievances," says Morris Andrews, the executive secretary of WEAC from 1972 to 1992.

Ruth Robarts, the three-term school board member whom Matthews famously labeled "Public Enemy No. 1," recalls being thoroughly impressed with Matthews when she first met him as a new teacher at Shabazz High School in the 1970s.

"I thought there was a good argument to be made about being a notch up on the salary schedule, so I called the union," Robarts recalls. "The executive director himself called me back, and bing, bing, a short period later I was correctly placed and got some back pay. I had a good first experience with John Matthews."

Robarts, herself a former executive director of the state nurses union, says "MTI is a very strong example of what a service union is."

Inside the district, the union contract governs many aspects of schools; therein lies the heart of Matthews' power.

"John's influence on the district is the contract," says Rainwater, who throughout his tenure has made having a positive working relationship with Matthews a priority. "To the extent to which there's a contractual issue, John works very hard to be sure the contract is enforced."

Matthews is "a person I respect greatly," says Rainwater. "Just by the nature of he and I eating lunch or breakfast over 400 times together, I think we know each other pretty well."

But some wonder whether those lunches have come at a cost - that is, whether Matthews has used the relationship to strengthen MTI's influence beyond the union contract.

And the concerns over the cozy ties between Rainwater and the union have been raised anew by recent revelations about a 2006 case. The Madison district, as part of a resignation deal negotiated by the union, agreed to not report to the Department of Public Instruction allegations of sexual impropriety by a Madison educational assistant named Anthony Hirsch, in violation of the spirit if not letter of the law. Hirsch, thereafter hired by another area district, is now facing charges for possession of child pornography and repeated sexual assault.

Rainwater insists he and Matthews never personally discussed the case.

Further, the men don't always see eye to eye. (Both have reputations, rightly or wrongly, for being stubborn and having short tempers.)

"We disagree a lot, but our agreement was that we wouldn't get mad at each other," says Rainwater. "Has it been frustrating sometimes? Yeah. But I don't ever remember getting really mad, and I don't remember him ever getting angry. We've lived by our agreement, and I think that's benefited both the district and MTI."

Flexing his muscle

This year, for the first time in recent memory, two candidates for open seats on the Madison school board are running unopposed.

Matthews, perhaps not surprisingly, likes both of them. If he didn't, it's less likely they would be running unopposed.

In recent years, though, MTI's clout in school board elections seems to have faded. In three consecutive races, MTI-backed candidates have lost despite thousands of dollars in PAC expenditures.

"I think there's more apparent political power than real," says board veteran Carol Carstensen, who's retiring this year. She praises Matthews for aggressively advocating on behalf of teachers and helping the district resolve tough personnel issues.

Johnny Winston Jr. came under a surprise attack from MTI last year, despite running for reelection against a self-described "conservative libertarian" who ran a weak campaign. Matthews tore into Winston in the MTI newsletter, which ran a headline proclaiming, "He Wants Your Health Insurance."

Admits Matthews, "I was not a kind person when he came in for his candidate interview. I beat him up pretty badly." To veteran board members, it was a classic example of Matthews flexing his political muscle.

"When Johnny Winston became president of the board, I think he thought he was becoming president of the United States or something," Matthews says. "He thought what came out of his mouth was gospel."

Asked what Winston did to warrant his wrath, Matthews, tellingly, can't remember.

"John has his peculiarities, and there are certain things that he expects," says Carstensen, herself once a victim of what she calls Matthews' "little tricks."

She attributes some of this to gender bias. "John always likes a good male candidate," says Carstensen. "One of the things I've always observed is that, when the [MTI] president is a male" - the position rotates annually - "John lets him do the talking as the voice of the union. When it was female, John was always there."

The latest school board member to receive Matthews' wrath is Maya Cole. She says Matthews and his allies, like former board member and MTI president Bill Keys, tried to intimidate her in the MTI endorsement interview and at some candidate forums. The day after her defeat of MTI-backed Marj Passman, Matthews was on the radio comparing Cole to Karl Rove.

Nearly a year later, his assessment is only somewhat muted: "I think she's a nice lady who means well, but she's not a strong advocate."

Early in her first term, board member Lawrie Kobza was caught off-guard when Matthews and Keys objected to her participation in contract votes because her husband earned $1,800 as a junior varsity coach at East High School. (He wanted to volunteer his time but couldn't because of the MTI contract, says Kobza.) Kobza considers this petty: "It almost gets to the level of being embarrassing."

Robarts credits Matthews with her decision to run for a third term in 2004, against MTI-backed Alix Olson. "I would not have run for reelection but for John's treatment of me," she says. "I just didn't want to be portrayed as someone who hates schools, unions and teachers."

And Robarts thinks some citizens decline to run for school board for fear of being branded as "hateful, anti-education, anti-teachers, anti-human beings" by Matthews and MTI.

But, she adds, her reelection in 2004, and the subsequent victories by Kobza, Cole and Lucy Mathiak, "proves it possible to get elected in Madison without the endorsement of John Matthews and MTI's PAC committee."

Blind spots

The purpose of a teachers union is to do what's best for teachers.

That's the tack the union has taken in its insistence on maintaining a costly health insurance plan with Wisconsin Physicians Service, on whose board Matthews sits as a paid member. Lower health costs could free up funds for increased teacher salaries. But MTI seems singularly focused on protecting the status quo; it's one of the union's main issues in deciding which school board candidates to back.

The union also takes a hard line in matters that have little to do with teacher benefits. In Madison, Matthews' union is hardly at the forefront of strategies aimed at boosting student achievement, and at times seems to be downright opposed to them.

This includes its opposition to collaborative 4-year-old kindergarten, virtual classes and charter schools, all of which might improve the chances of low achievers and help retain a crucial cadre of students from higher-income families. Virtual classes would allow the district to expand its offerings beyond its traditional curriculum, helping everyone from teen parents to those seeking high-level math and science courses. But the union has fought the district's attempts to offer classes that are not led by MTI teachers.

As for charter schools, MTI has long opposed them and lobbied behind the scenes last year to kill the Studio School, an arts and technology charter that the school board rejected by a 4-3 vote. (Many have also speculated that Winston's last minute flip-flop was partly to appease the union.)

"There have become these huge blind spots in a system where the superintendent doesn't raise certain issues because it will upset the union," Robarts says. "Everyone ends up being subject to the one big political player in the system, and that's the teachers union."

MTI's opposition was a major factor in Rainwater's decision to kill a 4-year-old kindergarten proposal in 2003, a city official told Isthmus last year (See "How can we help poor students achieve more?" 3/22/07).

Matthews' major problem with a collaborative proposal is that district money would support daycare workers who are not MTI members. "The basic union concept gets shot," he says. "And if you shoot it there, where else are you going to shoot it?"

At times, Matthews can appear downright callous. He says he has no problem with the district opening up its own 4K program, which would cost more and require significant physical space that the district doesn't have. It would also devastate the city's accredited non-profit daycare providers by siphoning off older kids whose enrollment offsets costs associated with infants and toddlers.

"Not my problem," Matthews retorts.

The future

As Maya Cole sees it, MTI is stuck in the past. It plays to fears about union busting and fails to embrace creative solutions to district problems.

"It's like they're still trying to relive the battles of the 1970s," she says. "Part of it is the teachers need to take their union back. What do they want to be in 10 or 20 years? Do they want to be resisting things that make education better?"

Robarts doubts things will change, so long as Matthews is in charge.

"They are just not going to get on the side of research and kids and say we'll try to make this work," she says. "Their biggest issue is the contract. It's wages, hours and working conditions."

But many teachers are happy to have John Matthews in their corner.

"People trust him," says Jim Skaags, a retired La Follette and Memorial high school teacher and four-time past MTI president. "He's retained his credibility and influence by keeping his word. Even people who dislike John respect him for that."

He'll get no argument from Matthews: "I love my work. I love solving problems. I think my future is sitting behind that desk and representing the 5,500 people of MTI."

The wit and wisdom of John Matthews

On school board president Arlene Silveira: "She's [made it] a very productive board of education. It's a good board because of her."

On departing vice president Lawrie Kobza: "I'm sorry to see her go. I think she's brought a depth and perspective that the board hasn't seen in a while."

On State Schools Superintendent Libby Burmaster: "She's hired a great staff. Am I a big supporter? Let's not go there."

On Stan Johnson, the former president of WEAC: "What an asshole."

On Gov. Jim Doyle: "Jim Doyle said the war on teachers is over. That was five years ago. I'm still waiting. I haven't seen any sign of it."

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