Strike Back Harder

The latest anti-strike bill still doesn't do enough to prevent walkouts

Assuming that Michigan Education Association intends to follow through with its threat of waging teacher strikes to protest changes to the state’s emergency financial manager law, the anti-strike bill that cleared the House Education Committee last week will create work for the union’s legal team, but probably won’t be enough to talk the union out of calling strikes.

After some reworking in committee, House Bill 4466 provides for the automatic decertification of a union after an illegal strike, and further provides that said union is ineligible to represent that bargaining unit, and will not receive service fees or union dues collected by the district for five years.

On the surface this looks like a pretty stiff penalty. It is similar to a proposal we made in our follow-up report on Michigan government labor law, in which collective representation, bargaining, and the collection of union dues should be suspended in the wake of a strike. But the latest version of the bill has a provision that saves the unions’ bacon: the bill calls for the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to immediately hold an election to certify a new union to take the place of the old one.

Dig beneath the surface, and we are still left with a fundamental difference in attitudes towards public-sector collective bargaining. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that collective bargaining for government employees is entirely at the discretion of states. The Michigan Legislature could abolish collective bargaining for local government employees on its own. It certainly could suspend bargaining where it has been abused, and an illegal strike definitely qualifies as abuse.

But the drafters of HB 4466 still seem to be stuck on the standard union talking point, which is that collective bargaining is a fundamental right, so that even after an illegal strike an ejected union must be replaced immediately. And the union dues must continue to flow as well, albeit to a different union.

This replacement of one union by another probably won’t serve as all that much of a deterrent. Certainly unions don’t like to lose dues-paying workers to competing unions, but the established unions all have very similar political outlooks. The Michigan Education Association might be willing to risk losing members and dues payers to the American Federation of Teachers in order to score points against the Snyder administration, and MEA’s operatives probably could adapt to life in an enlarged AFT as well.

We might even see a gentlemen’s agreement where striking MEA teachers flip over to the AFT and striking AFT teachers go to the MEA, leaving the two unions more or less where they started in terms of membership and dues revenue. Or union officials might try to dodge the law by reorganizing as a “local-only” union that would then rejoin their old union federation when the five-year period runs out.

HB 4466 could be strengthened by removing the section that calls for an election to name a replacement union. Instead, the rule should be that no union will be allowed for several years. That way, there is little question that the union establishment as a whole, both the union that called the strike and any union that might be willing to take its place, will lose out on members and dues after a strike is called.

In its determination to preserve collective bargaining, even in the wake of a strike, the Legislature is looking at a bill that should not prove especially difficult for union officials to evade. Policymakers can put an end to teacher strikes, but if they really want to do that, they will need to get past the union myth that collective bargaining for government employees is indispensible.