Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, told public TV’s “Off the Record” program last week that he now supports a right-to-work law for public school employees: “They (unions) could still offer (school employees) their membership; it wouldn’t be a forced membership. They (unions) would have to recruit and do their work off campus.” The full text of the relevant section of the interview is posted below.

In the past, Richardville has said he opposed an across-the-board right-to-work law for all public- and private-sector employees; such laws prohibit making union membership a condition of employment. In addition, until recently Richardville and the Senate have been seen by some as a hindrance to the even deeper reform proposals favored by the Republican majority in the House. (See House Tries, GOP Senate Denies, Prevention of Poor-Teacher 'Rubber Rooms' and GOP Senate Votes for More K-12 Money Than Governor's Proposal.)

Richardville insists that his partial reversal on right-to-work is motivated solely by helping local schools contain costs while maintaining quality, and there is every reason to believe he is sincere. Nevertheless, it comes in the same week as what appears to be a backlash by GOP senators against the MEA teachers union, which is bankrolling recall campaigns against a number of Republican lawmakers who earlier this year voted for modest reductions in the powers and privileges of government employee unions.

The first shoe in that backlash fell on Wednesday, when other Senate Republicans, including Education Committee Chairman Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, introduced a package of bills that would “blow up” the current cap of 150 on the number of charter public schools authorized by state universities, prohibit school districts from deducting union dues from employee paychecks, transition school employees to a 401(k)-type “defined-contribution” retirement system, and more.

The Legislature also just completed work on legislation capping school and other government employee health insurance fringe benefit costs. All these recent events stand in stark contrast to the Senate's more cautious behavior earlier in the year compared to the House. That said, both bodies have cooperated in passing a goodly number of very substantial school and government reforms this year.

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Here is a transcript of what Sen. Richardville said on public TV’s “Off the Record” program about a school Right to Work bill; the interview starts about 23 minutes into the program: 

Question: “Right-to-Work?” (whether it is on the agenda)

Richardville: “Not right-to-work. No. I’m not a believer that will transition the economy at this point. However, I will look some other things. Maybe a subset of that. If you pay dollars into a public school system, you send your kids there, you want to participate, I don’t know that you necessarily need to be a part of a union to work or teach in a school district.”

Question: “So right-to-work for teachers.”

RR: “I would call it the right to teach or the right to participate in the education system.”

Question: “Put that in practical terms: How would that work?”

RR: “They could still offer their membership; it wouldn’t be a forced membership. They would have to recruit and do their work off campus.”

Q: “Why would you single out public schools for that?”

RR: “Well because right now schools are the ones in dire straits. I believe those unions and those workers that are out in the economy in the day-to-day, the teamsters, the operating engineers, the carpenters, the building trades…they have already had a significant effect from this economy. They are paying more for their health care, they have less hours, they are getting less pay. They’ve had that effect directly. What’s happened in the public schools, and in some cases the public government in general, is that that economic impact hasn’t hit. And so we’re making those adjustments for that reason.”

Q: “Is this an anti-MEA move?”

RR: “Oh no, not at all.”

Q: “No attempt to get even?”

RR: “No, no, not at all.”

Q: “Attempt to take on the MEA?”

RR: “I don’t think taking on any union has anything to do with what our agenda is.”

Q: “Aren’t you aware that you have created the problem? I mean, you say the schools are in dire straits so what, the teachers don’t pay their union dues? How is that saving schools? And also, the governor is the one who took money out of the school aid fund to spend on other things, and the Legislature went along. So it is one thing to say the schools are in dire straits, but that is partly because of the Legislature.”

RR: “The dire straits wasn’t talking just about the financial piece of it. I don’t know if you’ve done the math or not before, but these ‘great cuts’ that you’re talking about totaled about 1.8 percent, far less than any other departments that we have in state government…”

Q: “I know that but that is about a billion dollars.”

RR: “But we are talking about roughly 80 percent of the costs of the schools being personnel. So you have to do something in order to reduce that cost but maintain the quality of the teachers.”