Tom Still: Morris Andrews made a difference in public education

His work for teachers' unions is his legacy

In an interview following his 1992 retirement as executive director of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, Morris Andrews was asked about his desired epitaph. Andrews replied: “He made some difference for public education.”

Indeed, Morris Andrews made some difference. Probably more than a difference, even his adversaries might agree.

Andrews, 83, who died Oct. 10 at UW Health University Hospital in Madison from a combination of cancer and a stroke, built WEAC into one of the nation’s leading teachers’ unions and one of Wisconsin most powerful political forces.

It’s hard for some to imagine now in the post-Act 10 reality that effectively ended collective bargaining for teachers in Wisconsin, but WEAC in its heyday was every bit as potent as business lobby groups such as Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce – and just as sophisticated as either major political party in Wisconsin when it came to running effective campaigns.

The success of WEAC over three decades at the bargaining table and in winning elections was largely due to Andrews and the disciplined, statewide political organization he built. By the time he retired in 1992 after 20 years at WEAC, teacher salaries and benefits had gone from being well below the U.S. average before the bitter (then illegal) Hortonville strike of 1974 to well above in the years after the state Legislature adopted a mediation-arbitration law to head off future strikes.

The same characteristics that made Andrews an effective organizer – negotiating from strength, compromising when it made sense, taking no prisoners when it didn’t – made him both feared and admired during his tenure at WEAC. Those traits also led to a second career as an independent consultant, where his accomplishments were less obvious to the public but nonetheless significant.

People generally loved or hated Morris Andrews. His fans called him Morris and his detractors “Morrie,” because they knew he wasn’t fond of the nickname. Andrews could be direct, gruff and even confrontational, yet he could also be a pragmatist who understood that half a loaf was better than bread crumbs.

Cantankerous at times (one of his own deputies referred to him as “Mr. SOB, with an asterisk for genius” in a 1990 profile for Milwaukee Magazine), Andrews was also inwardly studious and a careful listener.

He was among the first political organizers in Wisconsin to use public opinion polling to probe voter opinions, pored over census reports and would occasionally roam discount stores just to listen in on conversations by shoppers chitchatting about life. Andrews devoured election statistics and could describe how voters in most of Wisconsin’s 132 legislative districts were going to lean even before they knew themselves. He even delivered a simple messaging system for days in which the Legislature was voting on key issues: Andrews wore a red sports coat for a “no” vote and green for a “yes.”

Andrews could be ruthless if he felt a legislator had gone back on his or her word, underwriting political ads, direct mail or telephone campaigns to make life more difficult for the alleged offender. He became known as “The Devil on Nob Hill,” the site of WEAC’s Madison Beltline office, and worse. And yet, it was possible that much of Andrews’ bluster was part of a larger show designed to achieve a goal that made an outrageous demand look reasonable.

“I have a role to play,” a chuckling Andrews told the Wisconsin State Journal a few years before he retired.

Because Andrews could be relentless in pushing for teacher pay and benefits, a passion that dated back to his own years as a social studies teacher and young labor organizer in Michigan, he was a target for business leaders who saw WEAC as a major reason why Wisconsin’s property taxes were higher than many states.

Perhaps most upsetting to the business community was not the money itself, but the sense that WEAC didn’t care all that much about delivering quality education to go along with it. It was a perception that led to one of his longest-running duels, his love-hate relationship with former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson.

“If Andrews didn’t exist, Thompson would have to invent him,” wrote veteran journalist Steven Walters in 1991. That observation was made because Thompson, first elected in 1986, had basically steamrolled his opponents on a broad range of issues by the start of his second term and needed a highly visible foil to keep his own supporters fired up.

Tom Still: Morris Andrews made a difference in public education

Andrews was that foil. He was vehemently opposed to “school choice” and private school vouchers, even though his own speech notes from the time reveal his disappointment in the performance of the Milwaukee School District and leadership in City Hall.

His solution wasn’t school choice, as favored by Thompson and many Republicans, but to “require Milwaukee to have a plan to reduce poverty as a condition of receiving state shared revenue.” Shared revenue was and remains a major state program to assist cities.

One of my own encounters with Andrews came over school choice during my tenure as editorial page editor of the Wisconsin State Journal. I recall looking up one day from my desk to see an unsmiling Andrews, standing a few feet away and saying, “Tom, we need to talk.”

I mostly listened, of course, as Andrews offered his version of why Milwaukee schools and students were suffering, and how vouchers would only make matters worse. He came armed with facts and figures to make his case, one of the few he eventually lost in the state Capitol.

Even as Andrews and Thompson disagreed on much, there was a grudging mutual respect. Andrews called Thompson “the best listener of any governor I’ve ever dealt with” and Thompson described Andrews as a “great advocate for education in America.”

While WEAC was eventually identified with Democratic politics, Andrews knew that many teachers – especially in the state’s smaller school districts – were either Republicans, married to a Republican or living in a town full of Republicans. He was not a fan of extremists in either party, could be pro-business on some issues (especially if he thought it would lead to a stronger property tax base) and spent as much time trying to sway key Republicans lawmakers as he did to defeat others.

Andrews also held ideas that might surprise those who believed he didn’t give a hoot about education quality.

In a speech he delivered to Milwaukee Turners, Andrews complained that “many school districts do not offer adequate vocational courses” for students not on a college track, and that “public schools are biased in favor of college.” He also proposed requiring districts with fewer than 3,500 students to form cooperative agreements with other school districts or local governments to handle non-education issues such as purchasing.

Perhaps unsettling to some of his own members, Andrews wrote that “compensation of teachers and administrators has no relationship to student performance,” and that a system of bonuses based on student performance should be established. Today, that would be called “merit pay.”

His policies and politics were a curious blend of his union household upbringing and the Main Street Republican setting in his home town of Big Rapids, Michigan.

In his typed application to become executive director of WEA in January 1972, Andrews noted he was president of the Young Republicans chapter at Big Rapids High School in 1953-54 and a member of College Republicans at Central Michigan University during his four years there. The same Morris Andrews was a union organizer in Michigan, in Illinois and with the National Education Association in the years following his earning a master’s degree from Indiana University.

He was also a teacher and coach in three Michigan school districts, including a return to Big Rapids, where he had starred in football and track before playing football at Central Michigan. The competitive drive that characterized his work with WEAC was also evident on the athletic field and as a coach. Andrews is a member of the Mecosta County, Michigan, Sports Hall of Fame.

After recovering from heart surgery shortly after his WEAC retirement, Andrews embarked on a second career as a political adviser and consultant. He worked on campaigns for Democrats and Republicans alike, so long as he respected their intellect and passion for public service. Already adept at forming unlikely coalitions, he continued to work on education issues by persuading groups such as realtors, farmers and law enforcement that strong public schools made for a solid society and economy. Andrews also consulted on community efforts, such as the campaign that led to the opening of Madison’s Monona Terrace Convention Center in 1997.

Although he didn’t talk much about it once it happened, Andrews seemed to have read the handwriting on the wall about the 2011 passage of Act 10. That law all but ended collective bargaining for most public employees in Wisconsin, something that was averted during the Thompson years but passed in the opening months of Gov. Scott Walker’s tenure. Wary of what he saw as increasingly hostile attitudes toward teachers, Andrews had cautioned teachers not to get too cozy with one political party and to avoid strangling their own golden goose.

If Act 10 ended collective bargaining for teachers, did Andrews truly “make some difference for public education?” He has two enduring legacies. First, teachers today think of themselves as professionals, a feeling that wasn’t universal before he came on the scene. Second, most Wisconsin citizens believe that good schools are necessary for a healthy community, even if they disagree on how those schools are run and financed. No single law can take those prevailing attitudes away.

Tom Still was a Wisconsin State Journal reporter and editor, often covering the Capitol. He is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council.

A celebration of Morris Andrews’ life will be held at Monona Terrace on Sunday, Nov. 3. A reception will begin at noon, followed by a program at 1:30 p.m.