Teachers say union cheated on first test of Michigan Right-to-Work law

|
News,Watchdog

LANSING, Mich. - Members of the Taylor Federation of Teachers in Taylor, Mich., have worked without a collective bargaining agreement since 2010, when the last one expired.

But suddenly, in February, the union set aside three years of squabbling when it quickly ratified two new agreements, a 4-year collective bargaining deal and a 10-year union security contract.

Acting with equal dispatch, the Taylor School District accepted the two contracts just days later.

If you're thinking that federal lawmakers could learn something from this Main Street example of efficient deal-making, think again.

Three Michigan school teachers allege the union representing them is simply working with their district to lock in union control of schools before March 28, when the state's new right-to-work law takes effect.

Angela Steffke, Rebecca Metz and Nancy Rhatigan have filed suit, claiming the so-called "security contract" will require them to remain subject to union authority until 2023.

"I believe it's unfair of the union to have a security clause that requires me to be a member for 10 years," Metz said.

That right-to-work measure, passed last December amid furious pro-union protests, prevents employers from requiring union membership or payment of dues as a condition of employment.

But the law has two loopholes.

First, because the measure lacked two-thirds support in the legislature, it had to wait 90 days for enactment. That day is March 28. Second, the law also exempted existing agreements between employers and unions.

The loopholes proved broad enough for union negotiators. Facing a likely exodus of teachers disgruntled over a perceived lack of benefits in union membership, the Taylor Federation signed a new deal.

Union officials surely have reason to worry. In neighboring Wisconsin, 54 percent of the members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees left that union after passage of Act 10, Republican Gov. Scott's Walker's 2011 labor reform package.

Nationwide, unions lost more than 400,000 members last year, weakening their already diminished political clout.

The trio reached out to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative-oriented think tank, for legal help. Derk Wilcox, the group's lead attorney, filed the suit in Wayne County on the teachers' behalf.

Wilcox contends that the union security agreement violates the Michigan Public Employee Relations Act because the decade-long deal outlasts the 4-year collective bargaining agreement.

It's possible that the judge handling the case could throw out the security agreement, but Wilcox said it's likelier the judge will trim the 10-year contract to match the collective bargaining agreement's 4-year duration.

The Taylor teachers union refused to discuss the issue, directing inquiries to David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Hecker did not return several calls for comment.

The union leader, holder of the post since 2001, told Michigan Live that he believes everything's on the up and up. "We operate under the laws of the land," Hecker told the publication. "They could have moved to make these laws take immediate effect. They did not do that."

Political players quickly took sides in the spat.

"Teachers in Taylor and in districts across Michigan deserve much better than secret, illegal backroom deals between their union and local school board that cut teachers' salary while forcing them to join a union whether they want to or not," said Michigan Freedom Fund President Greg McNeilly.

Michigan Freedom Fund stood as a staunch right-to-work supporter while the bill quickly worked its way through the statehouse. The group believes the measure will lead to more jobs and greater economic prosperity in the state.

State Rep. Derek Geiss, a Democrat who represents Taylor City, said the lawsuit is frivolous and merely an attempt to crush unions.

"The billionaire foundations that fund the Mackinac Center don't care about the children in my district, nor the rights of workers," Geiss wrote in a prepared statement. "Rather, their concern is to squeeze a profit from the destruction of public schools and unionized educators."

Earlier this week, Michigan House Government Oversight Committee Chairman Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, invited Taylor School District officials to testify about the deal before his panel, but they declined.

The snub irked McMillin, who wondered publicly how the unprecedented 10-year agreement would benefit taxpayers.

"I can't understand why they are scared to come explain it to us since apparently they believe it's a great deal," McMillin taunted. "Unless, maybe it's not so great after all. I've never heard of any school having a 10-year contract with teachers."

Taylor Superintendent Diane Allen was out of her office Friday and unable to answer questions about the legal challenge.

Wilcox acknowledges the suit might prove an uphill battle in union-friendly Wayne County, but he remains hopeful.

"I trust the judge will do the right thing," he said.

You can read the teachers' legal brief here.

Dustin Hurst is a reporter with Watchdog.org.

View article comments Leave a comment