By Ben Velderman
LANSING, Mich. – After Gov. Rick Snyder signed the bill that made Michigan the nation’s 24th “right to work” state, the head of the state’s largest teachers union issued a press release blasting the governor’s decision.
In his official response, Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook called it “a dark day for our state” and mourned the rights that had been “stripped away from working people.”
Actually workers will have more rights, because they will finally have the ability to decide whether to join their workplace unions.
The only possible victims will be the unions themselves. Existing law makes it very likely that teacher unions will continue to exist with their full negotiating rights intact. But if they fail to conduct themselves in a manner that convinces members to stay in the fold and continue to pay monthly dues, they could potentially lose a lot of members, dues revenue and political clout.
But that’s an issue between unions and their members. It is not a matter of public concern.
Unions could lose money and influence
For all his doom and gloom, Cook failed to provide a single example of how the new law will hurt Michigan’s teachers – those “working people” the MEA supposedly represents and protects.
The reason for Cook’s omission is simple: The “right to work” law will have no effect on how the state’s teachers do their jobs or how public schools operate on a daily basis. The sole difference will be that Michigan’s educators will no longer be required to join their local teachers union – or pay a union agency fee – in order to work in a government school.
And while many teachers will use their new-found freedom to quit their unions, there is virtually no chance that a membership drop – big or small – will lead to any local union being decertified.
One long-time school board contract negotiator, who spoke with EAGnews on the condition of anonymity, notes that school boards are legally prohibited from taking any action to decertify a union as the bargaining agent for school employees. Nor can school boards entice employees to quit their union by promising them higher wages in return.
That practice is strictly prohibited in both the private and public sector realms, our source says.
If any effort is made to decertify a local teachers union, it would have to originate with a teacher, and he or she would face a lot of bureaucratic red tape and huge amounts of political opposition. In other words, it’s highly unlikely decertification will happen after the right to work law takes effect in March.
Since school employee unions will continue to exist, teachers will still be allowed to collectively bargain with school officials over wages, benefits and working conditions. And the negotiated wages and benefits will apply to all eligible employees, not just union members.
Teacher tenure and seniority protections will also remain unaffected, unless the state government acts to alter such policies.
If a teachers union loses a lot of its members, might a school board feel emboldened into taking a harder line during contract negotiations? Would the loss of members put teacher unions at a disadvantage at the bargaining table?
That’s not likely, according to the long-time contract negotiator.
“The union still has to represent 100 percent of the unit with equal vigor, or they will be found to have a ‘duty to fair representation’ problem,” our source says. “My suspicion is even the non-payers will eventually side with the union when it comes to their own paychecks in negotiations.”
The real reason “right to work” is causing so much heartburn at Michigan Education Association headquarters is because it threatens to disrupt teacher dues payments, the union’s main stream of revenue. With fewer dollars rolling in every month, the MEA could be forced to lay off a significant number of employees, reduce wages for those who remain and significantly scale back political activities.
In short, “right to work” could transform the now-powerful state teachers union into a hollowed-out shell of its former self. If it cannot entice members to stay, and continue paying dues, it could soon lack the resources necessary to provide political support to favorite candidates or influence policy at the state level.
Local unions would still have full bargaining rights, but their state union would not be the political beast it once was.
That’s why the MEA is so mad about right-to-work.
The Wisconsin way
Michigan might officially become a “right to work” state in March, but educators won’t be free to leave their unions until their district’s current collective bargaining agreements expires – a process that by some estimates will span three to six years.
By that time, analysts project that MEA membership could drop by as little as 10 percent, or as much as 50 percent.
To understand what’s in store for the MEA, just look to Wisconsin, says J. Justin Wilson, managing director of The Center for Union Facts.
When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation ending the practice of automatic union dues deductions, it effectively set a lot of public employees free from their unions.
“The Wisconsin Education Association Council (the state’s largest teachers union) is at 71 percent of its membership from two years ago,” Wilson tells EAGnews. “WEAC lost so many members that they laid off 40 percent of their staff last year.”
A steep membership drop could be devastating for the Michigan Education Association, which is already in serious financial trouble. Larry Sand of UnionWatch.org reports the MEA “ran an $11 million budget deficit in 2010-11 and is a cumulative $113 million in the red.”
That means the union will almost certainly have to cut expenses wherever it can.
That might eventually force the MEA to walk away from small school districts that have just a handful of teachers and even fewer dues payers, the contract negotiator says.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next three to five years, they walk away from some of these districts after their contract expires,” our source says.
The teachers would then be free to choose another union, or to use none at all. Such scenarios aren’t common, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Pressure is on unions to retain members
MEA leaders may have a huge financial problem on their hands, but Wilson isn’t ready to count them out just yet.
The unions may prove to be quite successful at maintaining most of their membership and a steady flow of dues revenue.
For instance, Wilson believes a significant percentage of older teachers may renew their membership cards out of loyalty.
“A lot of teachers who have paid union dues for 15 or 20 years probably don’t feel any ill-will toward the MEA,” Wilson says. “Members have been taught that they need the unions. It’s been ingrained in employees that without the union life would be worse. There’s a strong sense of brotherhood and solidarity among union members. And in my experience, this feeling is stronger among teacher unions than in service unions.”
If tradition and solidarity aren’t enough to keep some employees in the fold, Wilson says the union isn’t above publicizing the names of “quitters” in hopes that peer pressure will discourage other wayward workers from following suit.
But as veteran teachers retire, the MEA will have to convince the next generation of Michigan educators that voluntary union membership is in their best interests. That might force the MEA into rethinking its stand on certain policies – such as “last in, first out” layoff rules – that negatively impact young, less senior educators.
Considering that many teachers identify themselves as politically moderate or conservative, MEA leaders may also have to tone down their rabid left-wing political agenda.
As it stands, perhaps half of the union’s rank-and-file members describe themselves as politically liberal, yet the union leadership is 100 percent liberal, and gives almost all of its political contribution money to left-wing candidates.
Under the forced membership system, there was little that rank-and-file members could do about that. Now that they have the right to leave the union, their opinions are bound to be more closely considered at union headquarters.
“The unions will have to be more responsive to their members, will have to justify their dues,” Wilson says.
The new ability to influence union policy may turn out to be a very positive change for teachers and other workers in Michigan.