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Topics: Labor Unions

Sean Higgins: Michigan teacher unions want long-term right to rule public schools

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Labor unions

Michigan recently became the 24th state to adopt a right-to-work law, meaning unions there can no longer either force workers to join or pay dues. The practice is dying hard in the state, though.

Mike Van Beek, education policy analyst at the conservative Mackinac Center, reports that about 100 school districts completed labor contracts between the new law's passage and its March 28 effective date.

About three-fourths of those contracts will last longer than the standard three-year term. Ten have separate "security clauses" -- the requirement that all employees either join or pay dues -- that run eight to 10 years.

"This is the very thing right-to-work was meant to prohibit," Van Beek said. And these contracts, he notes, are just those negotiated by the public school unions.

The most controversial example involves Taylor Federation of Teachers Local 1085. The union represents Taylor, a city just south of Detroit. It negotiated a five-year contract that also includes a 10-year security clause.

Local 1085 President Linda Moore was quite matter of fact when I called and asked her about it.

"Knowing that we were heading into right to work, we negotiated the union security clause as well," Moore said. It was "absolutely" a reaction to the state passing a right-to-work law, she told me.

She added that the union's security clause typically was "for the length of the (contract) agreement."

"They have historically been about three years. But we're in a different situation. It's a new day here with the cuts in the state funding to public education and the attacks on public educators," Moore said.

The contract also included a 10 percent pay cut for the employees, as well as other concessions. Republican critics have alleged the union bargained away the teachers' wages in exchange for the security clause. Moore insists that allegation is "absolutely false" and that the school district, which faced a $20 million deficit, initially pushed a 12 percent pay cut.

Another example is Detroit's Wayne State University, where American Association of University Professors Local 6075 negotiated an eight-year contract with a security clause of the same duration.

University President Allan Gilmour defended the contract, arguing he saved money by negotiating smaller wage hikes than prior contracts and that he got authority to adjust them downward if necessary in the future.

"The union came to us looking for union security, as you could imagine, and we had a lever. So we straightened out a lot of things. They got what they wanted. We got what we wanted," Gilmour told reporters in March.

Statehouse Republicans were angered but last month abandoned an effort to pass a law punishing the unions for contracts that clearly violate the spirit, if not quite the literal word, of the right-to-work law.

Not everyone is backing down, though. Three Taylor teachers, Angela Steffke, Nancy Rhatigan and Rebecca Metz, are suing their union, arguing that it put its own interests above that of the teachers.

Mackinac Center lawyer Derk Wilcox, who is representing the three teachers, argues the union's contract is itself illegal because the union five-year contract and the 10-year security clause contract actually represent two separate contracts.

"Michigan has statutes which prohibit separate, long-term side agreements that affect wages and compensation that go beyond the collective bargaining agreement," Wilcox said. Moore said she was confident the case would be tossed.

The Mackinac Center's role in the lawsuit has caused the unions to claim it sought out the teachers for the case. Wilcox insists it was the other way around: The teachers came to the center. As plaintiff Steffke put it when the suit was announced: "This suit ... won't change my salary one way or another. It is about fighting for my freedom of association and freedom from coercion, allowing me to advocate for myself and determine what is best for me and my family."

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner