Unions have historically been a source of debate between Democrats and Republicans since Theodore Roosevelt, but Michigan’s GOP legislators’ union-busting may cause even more adversity to the already wilting public school system.
Since January, House Republicans have introduced five bills that could significantly and perhaps irrevocably alter the public schools as Michigan residents know it: House bills 4142, 4141, 4671, 4152, 4628. With the steep majority they have in the Legislature, they have been able to push two of them through without much resistance.
House bill 4152 amends an earlier act to prohibit public school employees from going on strike. The amendment adds more restrictions to teachers’ collective bargaining efforts. Essentially, the teachers must, according to law, continue working during the collective bargaining process with the school board. However, if the teachers’ contracts run out and there is no new agreement in place, 4152 says that the school board does not have to pay automatic pay increases and any increases in benefits. With inflation increasing every year, if a district’s teachers are not satisfied with the school board’s compromise, and their contracts expire, they will see reductions in their real wages and will have to pay for any increases in benefits, including the exorbitant ones such as health insurance, until a new contract is signed. HB 4152 was signed into law as Public Act 54 this past June.
Rep. Marty Knollenberg of Troy, who sponsored HB 4152, now PA 54, said he believed the law would improve the collective bargaining process. “I think that what the law has done is make more contracts be settled faster,” Knollenberg told lodeplus.com.
Public Affairs Director for the Michigan Education Association, Doug Pratt, did not agree to the point that the law helps. In fact, Pratt claimed that the law “solves a problem that doesn’t really exist.”
Knollenberg claimed that Royal Oak schools had a budgetary short-fall of $700,000 when Royal Oak superintendent Thomas Moline contacted him for help. “They might have had to lay-off teachers or not provide necessary classroom materials for students.” Moline has since been replaced by successor Shawn Lewis-Lakin.
Lewis-Lakin did concur that there had been a serious problem in contract negotiations. However, when lodeplus.com asked him about the allegations from the MEA and the Michigan Democrats that the new laws targeted union workers and hurt middle-class families, he evasively replied, “I think there’s many challenges facing public schools. We will continue to work together with all employees to meet those challenges.”
Pratt believed that the Republican Party has been engaging the old fashioned union-busting, for which they are classically known. “[The public acts 54 and 103] are a part of a year-long assault on collective bargaining,” Pratt remarked. He explained further that Senate bill 7 was introduced to mandate employee contributions to employer-provider health care benefits, in other words, all workers, public or not, would by law, if the bill is passed, have to pay a portion of their health care benefits. Senate bill 14 is a bill to repeal the Michigan Occupational Health and Safety Act. Senate bill 20, which was signed into law as Public Act 10, prohibits the requirement for businesses to adhere to rules on workplace ergonomics. “There’s bills that ban the collection of union dues,” said Pratt about Senate bill 729.
SB 729 would impose right-to-work laws on public school employees, as well. “Right-to-work” laws seek to encourage economic growth by making it easier for employers to fire their workers. “Right-to-work” is already in effect for most Michigan residents; so far Michigan has among the lowest employment levels in country. The very reason the political lobbying group, Michigan Freedom to Work, has promoted more right-to-work legislation is because they believed it would help grow the state economy. Pratt’s statistics suggest the opposite, claiming that in states, such as Texas, that have adopted “right-to-work”, unemployment has only increased.
According to Knollenberg, the collective bargaining process had hindered the improvement of the school system. He claimed 30% of the school districts in Michigan are without a contract.
House Democratic floor leader Kate Segal did not deny this fact. She told lodeplus.com, “there are many schools operating without a contract, but I still do not agree with Lansing coming in and telling [local school boards] to cut public employees compensation.”
Knollenberg contended that the law gives the bargaining units more incentive to come to an agreement within a reasonable time frame. “If you knew you were going to get an automatic pay increase, why would you ever agree to a new contract?”
Segal asserted the opposite. “There’s no incentive for employers to come to the table to negotiate. “
Knollenberg did think the law amounted to a penalty to teachers for not signing the new contract promptly. He told lodeplus.com, “Nobody wants a pay cut, but I believe that when a contract expires, there shouldn’t be a built-in system to give employees automatic pay increases.”
One might ask: If the anti-union laws will make working as a public school employee less attractive to college graduates or otherwise qualified prospects, won’t that hurt public schools? Pratt would say yes. He believes it is all part of “an on-going effort to attack public education”.
Why would politicians, civil servants, want to attack public education?
Pratt said that corporate interest driven organizations and politicians want to clear the path for charter schools. “[private institutions] push union reform, they want to get unions out of the way, impose fewer safety regulations, less investment in education. It means more tax revenue investment to for-profit companies.” And contrary to popular belief, according to Pratt, charter schools are not necessarily better than public schools and do not have smaller class sizes. He even said that Michigan families would lose in the end. “Over the short to mid-term, it means less money in the pockets of families in the state. In the long term, people are beginning to realize this isn’t what they want.”
But Michigan students are already in dangerous straits and it is difficult to imagine things actually getting worse and they did get worse over the past year. In the 2009-2010 school year, 59.6% of all 11th graders in Michigan tested proficient in reading and writing, according to the Michigan Merit Examination findings. That means 4 out of every 10 Michigan 11th graders tested are not proficient in reading and writing. This number went down in the 2010-2011 school year to 58%. The statistics look much worse in Mathematics. A disturbing 37.9% of all 11th graders in Michigan were tested “proficient” in mathematics in 2009-2010. It rose slightly to 39.6% the next year, but the problem persists and, with the Grand Ol’ Party’s recent anti-union campaign, could get much worse.
House bill 4628 restricts the subject matter that the public school employees can even negotiate during collective bargaining. Some subjects that are prohibited under the bill are: who or what entity will be the group insurance policyholder; the composition of school improvement committees; decisions made by school boards regarding the placement of teachers or the impact of such decisions on individual employees or bargaining units; decisions about the reduction of the workforce or the elimination of positions; decision about evaluations; decisions about discharging or discipline of employees; decisions about the method of compensation; and how evaluations are used to determine performance-based compensation. The bill almost completely dissolves the ability of public school employees to negotiate the terms of their contracts. HB 4628 was signed into law as Public Act 103 in July of this year.
House bill 4141 allows GOP bigwigs to essentially choose who will sit and serve the School District Services Consolidation Commission. Four appointees each are afforded to the Governor, who happens to be Republican, the Senate majority leader, also Republican—and one would be hard-pressed in trying to find a Michigan state Senate majority leader in the past who was not a Republican—and the Speaker of the House, also, of course, Republican. One additional member sits in this board that is either the superintendent of Public Instruction or an ex-officio appointee of the superintendent, in other words, the thirteenth member does not vote.
House bill 4142 extends the length of the probationary period before teachers can be awarded tenure. Tenure is a job security feature of almost every contract for almost every teacher from grade schools to universities. It has been one of the prime attractions to the field, a center-piece for recruiters. Most teachers have a probationary period of sorts during which they must prove themselves. In the past, for public school teachers, two years was pretty much standard. If HB 4142 is signed into law, the school boards in Michigan will have the right to extend the probationary period to three years.
House bill 4671 places a cap on district superintendents’ salaries. These three bills have yet to be voted on, but they cannot be stopped by Democrats alone, so if the Republicans want it, they will probably get it.
Pratt did not believe HB 4141 and 4142 would get very far, because the representative that introduced the bills, Rep. Tim Melton, is no longer a member of the State Legislature. However, until they get voted on, there is a chance that the bills could become law, which could mean more bad news for Michigan students, families, and ultimately, the entire state.