Angela Steffke, a special-education teacher at Kennedy High School, knows exactly what her students are fighting to overcome. The pretty, delicate blonde says she couldn’t read until she was eleven, and that she wears a hearing aid to this day. Her experience inspired her to make a difference in the classroom — she’s known for never accepting “I can’t” as an excuse from her students.
But these days, disabilities aren’t the only obstacle Steffke faces. One of three teachers suing the Taylor Federation of Teachers and the Taylor, Mich., school district, she says unions are taking away her rights and obstructing her efforts to work with struggling children.
Last December 11, Michigan decided to become the 24th right-to-work state in the U.S. — infuriating unions, who took to the capitol in vociferous protest, to no avail. The law goes into effect March 28 and, if a 2010 Heritage Foundation calculation is accurate, it will cost Michigan’s unions $46.5 million a year; organized labor has watched membership drop by double-digit percentages in other states after workers were given a choice.
The Taylor Federation of Teachers did not take this threat lightly. The union negotiated a “security clause” with the school district — a clause uncharacteristically separate from their four-year contract — that obligates teachers to pay dues until 2023. Right now, Steffke pays more than $700 annually in dues, a figure likely to rise in the next year. And, because the deal was inked before March 28, it will remain in effect, trapping teachers like Steffke who want to quit the union and costing each one $7,000 or more over the next decade.
Steffke says the school district’s numerous union obligations to secretaries, bus drivers, maintenance workers, and others have hurt the quality of education. Right now, she says, classes are overcrowded: There are about 35 students in each English class and as many as 40 in each math class. Steffke doesn’t have enough textbooks for her students, she says, and her classroom often goes uncleaned. The teachers’ union has done little to improve the situation, failing even to negotiate a contract with the district for the last three years.
But after the right-to-work legislation passed, “the union really wanted to get a contract because they believed, rightly so, that people would want to leave,” Steffke says. “The school district and the union worked together — they colluded — to come up with this last-hour deal: one, to protect the union and ensure they have steady income, and [two], because the [financially embattled] district needed a plan to present to the state.”
The Taylor Federation of Teachers negotiated a contract with some bitter pills for teachers in it. The teachers will see a 10 percent pay cut next year, as the school district struggles to get its finances in order; the Taylor School District’s projected deficit is $9.3 million by June 2013, according to the state superintendent’s newest quarterly report. In the end, both the four-year union contract and the separate ten-year security clause passed, but with nearly 20 percent of members voting against them.
Linda Scott Moore, president of the Taylor Federation of Teachers, tells National Review Online that the right-to-work legislation had “absolutely had nothing to do with our agreement at all. . . . We were taking a very significant wage reduction and wanted to make sure that money came back to us and that there were some benefits at the end.” But the ten-year security clause, Scott Moore says, “was a protection for our membership.” She adds that “we wanted to make sure that we were able to continue collectively bargaining with the district and didn’t weaken our union membership, our union stance, our ability to be a union.”