ROSCOMMON, Mich. – Roscommon Area Public School teachers decided that efficiency and their students were more important than their loyalty to the Michigan Education Association when they decided to leave the parent union last year.
Roscommon teachers became the first in years to decertify from the MEA and recertify as a local union – the Roscommon Teachers Association – by a vote of 42-22.
But the change did not come easily.
For decades the MEA has used scare tactics on public school teachers to maintain their membership and their dues money, and for decades the strategy has worked very well.
It worked on two different occasions in the past when Roscommon teachers tried to break away. Supporters of such a move thought they had the necessary votes 10 years ago, but MEA officials met with Roscommon teachers and convinced them that leaving was a bad option.
“It’s like this big comfy pillow (teachers) sleep on, the MEA. What people don’t really realize is that you can get another comfy pillow for half the cost, but the MEA has people believing that they are the sole provider of labor union benefits,” said Jim Perialas, president of the new RTA.
Perialas served as Roscommon’s chief negotiator with the MEA for nearly 20 years, and has seen how the bureaucratic organization fails to meet the needs of rank-and-file members.
What really put Roscommon teachers over the top was when they found out “the MEA had around a $50 fee they were going to tack on to everybody’s union dues to help fund the ‘underfunded’ pensions of the MEA executives,” Perialas said.
The fee was not voluntary.
The MEA claims that most dues revenue goes toward teacher liability insurance, litigation insurance, negotiation services, and political lobbying. This sounds nice, but are teachers really getting their money’s worth?
“The only area the MEA actually provided a perceived benefit was in the political arena. They spent millions of dollars of teachers’ dues, combating the legislature and governor, and a failed ballot proposal (to put union rights in the state constitution). This was an epic failure, and a waste of money,” Perialas said.
Perialas said that Roscommon teachers often negotiated their own contracts anyway, and the few times the MEA helped it only offered non-substantive assistance.
Perialas told EAGnews, “If you are asking for examples of ineffective negotiations (on the part of the union), I would say they didn’t provide any real negotiation services, so it couldn’t have been ineffective. It was just non-existent.”
In reality, the MEA is too large and does not have the capacity to effectively negotiate contracts at the local level, Perialas said. Lansing-based negotiators and MEA executives do not have a vested interest of knowing the issues of every school district.
Are pocket calendars worth it?
While Roscommon teachers did not always receive their promised negotiating services, their union dues of nearly $1,000 per year did get members pocket calendars and various discounts.
These trinkets did not make dealing with the MEA worth it for Perialas and other Roscommon teachers. The new RTA (the local union) offers liability and litigation insurance, representation during contract negotiations and grievances, and other services for teachers, and it comes at a greatly discounted price.
Perialas thinks Roscommon teachers are better off now than they were before. Under the MEA, the union was the policy holder when it came to litigation and liability insurance. Under the new policy, each union member is the policy holder. Whereas previously the MEA decided when a Roscommon teacher could use certain benefits, now the teacher is in control of how and when these benefits are used.
RTA hired a labor attorney to handle grievances and give legal advice. Under the MEA those duties were performed by regional UniServ directors – typically former teachers – who make around $130,000 a year, according to Perialas.
Perialas said the RTA now uses the free market to pick and choose attorneys, insurance policies and other services. By the time they pay their bills this year, he said they will bank $25,000. Their union dues have already decreased nearly $400 per year, and once the RTA has enough money in the bank, Perialas expects to cut dues even more.
Is MEA really a democratic Institution?
The MEA prides itself on being a democratic organization, yet its leadership enforces a hierarchical system and uses peer pressure to get what it wants, according to Perialas. Who benefits from this type of system?
“A lot of the union hierarchy comes from teachers,” Perialas said. “The biggest butt-kissers and brown-nosers amongst the different teachers and local unions, the union president and so forth that toe the line, they’re the ones that get these lucrative UniServ positions. So they keep their low-level workers in line so that they can schmooze up to getting one of these $130,000 UniServ jobs.”
There isn’t much room for discussion among the rank-and-file about MEA policies, according to Perialas. For instance, people are typically shouted down at MEA coordinating council meetings when they suggest lowering member dues.
He said that “All these big unions, they say that unions are democratic and people vote on things, but they are the most undemocratic organization I have ever been a part of. There is so much peer pressure and arm twisting,” Perialas said.
Roscommon teachers just grew tired of what Perialas termed “the continual raiding of our pocketbooks,” particularly since union leaders enjoy large salaries and impressive pensions.
Money well saved
According to Perialas, “Now we control our union, destiny, and pocketbooks.” RTA members are free to decide if they want to raise or lower dues. They are free to award $350 scholarships to students, which they did last year.
At the state level, he said “the question we should ask is has the lobbying by the big unions handcuffed legislators in education reform, or has it helped it?”
Perialas thinks the large amount of dues money spent on political contributions might be contributing to legislative gridlock in Lansing and preventing many reform measures from becoming law.
Although the MEA has been telling a lot of its groups that Roscommon teachers are worse off since the switch and that the leadership of the RTA is on the side of the administration, Perialas says this is not true.
For the most part, the relationship between teachers and administrators has not really changed, according to Perialas. He said that “there was a good working relationship … and it does not just go away.” The administrators and teachers are the same people under the RTA as they were under the MEA, he said. The issues that existed prior to leaving the MEA still exist.
Roscommon teachers are more satisfied than they were under the MEA as their needs are better met, according to Perialas. Once Roscommon left the MEA, teachers saved roughly $400 a year, received better services, and they also saw some of that money go back into the community.
There are probably about three to five teaching staffs in various districts in the state that are actively pursuing separation from the MEA, according to Perialas.
Authored by Alissa Marsh – EAGnews.org