Politics & Policy

Michigan Unions vs. Teachers

They’re obstructing a new right-to-work law.

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.”

Scott Moore, who has a $78,000 compensation package in addition to retirement funds, says she agrees with Steffke that “the Taylor School District is really appalling,” and that teachers have received wages below the standards of other districts in the local tri-county area even as support staff have received generous compensation. She says that although union leadership has not been willing in the past to address these problems, “we need to solve the problem today, and then we move forward and continue that fight.”

But Steffke says she’s further upset because the dues she will be forced to pay over the next decade will fund political efforts she doesn’t necessarily support. She says her local alone spent around $125,000 in 2012 to support Proposition Two, a failed ballot measure that sought to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution, money that, in her assessment, “got flushed down the toilet.”

Steffke also says that the American Federation of Teachers supports “only Democrats” and that “a lot of that [dues] money goes to lobbyists [pushing for political causes]. . . . They call that part of collective bargaining, even though it has no direct benefit to me. It certainly doesn’t help me in the classroom.” She says she also “really resents” David Hecker, president of Michigan AFT, who received $176,195 in compensation in 2011. “My dues are going up, and he’s going to get more money,” Steffke says. (Hecker said he did not have time to respond to National Review Online’s repeated inquiries.)

The Taylor Federation of Teachers’ ten-year security clause “is totally out of line,” says Derk Wilcox, a senior attorney at the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation who is representing Steffke and two other Taylor teachers. Passing the security clause and the contract separately constitutes a violation of Michigan’s contract law, Wilcox says. He also argues that the school board can’t make policy that reduces the power of future elected school boards — something a ten-year security clause does.

“What’s going on in Taylor — nobody’s ever seen this before,” Wilcox says. “We’re actually calling this an ‘insecurity agreement,’ because the unions are going all-out to try to keep the teachers in and paying dues as long as they can. They think they need to pretty much hold them hostage for the next ten years. Teachers should be treated as adults and decide whether or not they should contribute to the union.”

Taylor’s teachers’ union isn’t alone in employing this tactic. In Warren, Mich., an eight-year contract was approved, more than double the length of the standard three-year contract of the past; in Grand Rapids, teachers are locked in for another three years. The Detroit News reported this week that the University of Michigan and the lecturers’ union signed a five-year contract, and Wayne State University signed an eight-year agreement. Other school districts are pursuing similar contracts.

The Republican legislators behind the 2012 right-to-work legislation have noticed the unions’ loophole maneuvering and are exploring options, says Ari Adler, spokesman for the Michigan House Republicans. “There is a concern over contracts that are being negotiated over what appears to be the sole purpose of evading the new right-to-work laws,” Adler says. “It’s something that the House Republicans are looking at because we have concerns about savings for taxpayers and what these contracts will mean for students [and] also what they will mean for teachers.”

Already, the House Oversight Committee has requested an explanation of the new contracts ratified by the Taylor School District and Wayne State University, Adler says, adding that appropriations subcommittees are looking into the “what could be done, the impact on funding.”

Meanwhile, Steffke says she just wants to get back to work. “I want my kids to achieve their potential, I want to be in an environment that allows me to do that, but I’m very frustrated right now,” she says. “If I’m not allowed to exercise what is going to be a state right for other people come March 28, I have a problem with that.”

 Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. 

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