Relationship Management: Whipping Legislators into Line

The pretty blue and white yard sign in the teacher’s yard said:

Senator Vinehout

Stand up for parent involvement in schools

Stop Blocking AB 116

The message really isn’t very clear but sounds as though I am getting in the way of parents and teachers working together.

The message is totally wrong.

What is more interesting, however, is the yard sign serves an example of what is known in Madison as relationship management – a  nice term for trying to whip a legislator into line when she doesn’t do what a lobbyist wants. It is part of the Madison culture that needs to be changed.

In this case it was the lobbyist for the Wisconsin Education Association Council who, when I told him I wouldn’t vote for his bill, contacted all the teachers in the district to lobby me and put up yard signs. That’s perfectly fair. Members of all kinds of organizations and with all kinds of interests contact me every day in very positive ways.

Occasionally, however, the intent is punitive and coercive. When this happens, the message from the lobbyist back to the members in the district, to motivate them to contact me, is usually incomplete and often misleading.

The bill that caused the yard signs to sprout is a good example. It would allow parents to use the Family Medical Leave Act to take time off from work to attend a parent/teacher conference or other school activity.  My first question was: what is there about a parent/teacher conference that requires a medical leave? There was no good answer.

I wanted to know what the problem was that needed to be solved by the proposed law. Again, there was no good answer. Nobody had numbers to show there is a problem getting parents to attend parent/teacher conferences and there was certainly nothing to indicate that giving a parent a few hours of medical leave would motivate them to go to such a conference. It began to look like a solution looking for a problem.

Wisconsin’s Family Medical Leave Act was passed years ago to keep employees from being laid off or fired when they took time off for their own or family member’s serious illness or the birth of a baby. The law is more generous than the federal Medical Leave Act and has served Wisconsin well.

Expanding it to cover other situations presents problems as I found out two yeas ago when I tried to include immediate family members helping their soldiers prepare for deployment.

I researched how other states deal with employees who need time off to attend school activities. In California, parent/teacher conferences are included under the employee relations law. Companies can’t discriminate against an employee who uses existing time off for school activities. That sounded like a good solution to me, but the WEAC lobbyist insisted the Medical Leave Act had to be changed - nothing else was acceptable. At that point he started relationship management .

In four years no teacher or administrator ever mentioned any problem with getting parents to parent/teacher conferences. Teachers I talked to, when I described the proposed law, wonder why it is being proposed. One went on to describe their state lobbyist as heavy handed with the attitude of “it’s my way or the highway”.

Lobbyists, like others in Madison who play the insider’s game, often lose touch with the members of the organizations for which they work. While teachers and administrators are struggling with tight budgets, program cuts and teacher layoffs, the WEAC lobbyist is wasting time raising the pressure to change the Family Medical Leave Act to include parent/teacher conferences.

I am reminded of Helen Reddy’s old song, “That ain’t no way to treat a lady- no way. But maybe it’s a way for us to end.”

That is the problem with trying to “manage” a relationship. It can get managed to death.