By Ben Velderman
MARSHFIELD, Wis. – In late February of 2011, Marshfield business owner John Nikolai received a troubling email that dragged him into the middle of Wisconsin’s messy fight over collective bargaining privileges for public sector unions.
The email contained a list of 58 Marshfield residents who had contributed to Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, including how much they contributed and the names of their employers.
“The attached list of Walker contributors may be of interest for whatever reason,” read the message that was forwarded by teacher Peggy Hartwig to her fellow Marshfield Area Teachers Association members and two school administrators on February 20, 2011.
The original email came from a man named Terry Gillespie, who is not listed as a school district employee. Hartwig forwarded Gillespie’s email, adding her own comments above his.
“Thought you would like to see this!” Hartwig wrote to MTA members. “Thank you for your continued support.”
Nikolai received a copy of the email from “a friend,” but he didn’t believe the donor list was being passed around “for whatever reason,” as the email suggested. The message was sent with a very specific reason: MTA members were being given a list of local, pro-Walker businesses that could be boycotted by union supporters.
The email’s implied threat of financial retribution against political opponents mirrored bullying union tactics used in other Wisconsin communities.
In Union Grove, business owners were sent a letter by an American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees official, warning that any businesses without a pro-union sign in the window would be subjected to a boycott.
The “Boycott Scott Walker Contributors” Facebook group was also formed on February 13, 2011 in order “to shine a spotlight on companies that support Scott Walker” in favor of “local small businesses that benefit our communities,” according to the group’s mission statement.
The group is still active, and currently has 23,409 “likes.”
It was this atmosphere in which Hartwig’s email was sent, and added to the perception that the teachers union was willing to intimidate or financially punish anyone who dared to support their enemy.
Of course the bully tactics did not work. Walker retained his office by a healthy margin. But the unions were once more exposed for being pushy, arrogant and willing to stoop to any level to get what they want.
A citizen demands answers
This wasn’t Nikolai’s first encounter with teacher union radicals. During the height of the union protests at the state capitol building in February of 2011, Nikolai was in Madison for the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce conference to network with fellow business owners and meet with legislators.
Several of those appointments were cancelled, due to the disruptive presence of the protesters. Nikolai and several other business leaders went to the capitol building to get a first-hand view of the chaos.
To his surprise, several Marshfield teachers were at the protests, rather than in their classrooms.
So Nikolai knew there were some hardcore political activists in the local teachers union.
After discovering that his name was on the Walker donor list that had been circulated among MTA members, Nikolai decided to get some answers from school officials.
On March 3, 2011, Nikolai sent an email to Patrick Saucerman, the Marshfield school district’s director of business services, asking for an explanation.
“Hi Pat,” Nikolai wrote. “Can’t tell you how proud I am to be on this list. Just want to make sure that the teachers in this email were not on the taxpayer payroll when they were in Madison. I fully support their right to protest on their own time.
“Also, not sure what ‘mtastaff’ is, but was wondering if it is school district affiliated, and if it is, if I can use the email list as this private citizen did.”
But Nikolai didn’t receive a satisfactory response, and he was still requesting answers from the district nearly three weeks later.
“I have had cause to send 13 emails (now 14 emails) about an email that was sent out on district computer equipment, on a district email list (not available to district taxpayers) with a list of people who have given donations to a political campaign,” Nikolai wrote in a March 20, 2011 message to Saucerman.
“We have local business owners being contacted by district employees and being told that boycotts of services will happen because of their support of the ‘offending’ candidate. I asked you if anyone from the district has looked into this matter – you either missed the question or chose not to answer it.
“Personal emails should be protected … but at my company or any other company in the district, whatever an employee writes via email on a company owned computer using a company owned server … is subject to review and oversight by the company ownership,” Nikolai wrote.
Teacher disciplined for sending email
Eventually, Nikolai spoke with then-Superintendent Bruce King, who told him the district had handled the problem.
King “assured me that disciplinary action was being taken and that he personally spoke to all the teachers involved and assured me that everyone understood the email policy, so emails used for union organizing would not be allowed on district equipment …,” Nikolai wrote in a letter to board members.
Peg Geegan, Marshfield’s current superintendent, told EAGnews the teacher who originally forwarded the email was reprimanded by the district and sanctioned by her union.
Considering that Walker survived his recall election, and no damaging boycotts appear to have materialized in Marshfield, some will label the email incident as ancient history that’s best forgotten.
That would be a mistake.
If anything, the fact that business boycotts were even considered by the MTA reveals the depths unions will sink to fight their political battles. Teacher unions will tear communities apart, just to get their way in the state legislature or at the bargaining table.
It’s a lesson taxpayers must remember, because Wisconsin’s public sector labor unions are still a force to be reckoned with. If people forget what they’re capable of, the state may be doomed to relive its Big Labor nightmare, over and over again.