(Editor's note: This is an edited version of an Op-Ed that appeared Dec. 14 in The Oakland Press.)
Government employee strikes are illegal in Michigan, but that has not stopped teachers unions from taking to the picket line and winning concessions. In the recent case of the Wayne-Westland school district, a state judge ordered striking teachers to return to work but exacted no penalties. Since current law appears to be toothless, it's time to consider a new approach.
The current penalty for a strike by public school teachers is a fine equal to their pay for every day they refuse to work. In theory it's a stiff penalty; in practice it still sometimes fails to serve as a deterrent. There are two reasons for this. First, the penalty is difficult to enforce. A school district must be prepared to go through court hearings for every teacher it intends to fine. Legal costs alone make this prohibitive.
Second, the penalty doesn't affect the most responsible party: the union that called the strike. In the case of Wayne-Westland, there is reason to believe that the striking teachers themselves are being manipulated into believing that the issue of health plan administration is of greater importance for them than it actually is. (The union wants to retain health coverage under the Michigan Education Special Services Association, a third-party administrator and Michigan Education Association affiliate that outsources insurance underwriting to Blue Cross Blue Shield and resells the policies to school districts.)
Proposals by the district give teachers several options. For a modest employee contribution, teachers can still select one of two Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plans administered by MESSA — much as they have now. Or they can select another Blue Cross Blue Shield program, albeit under a different administrator.
This may be disappointing to teachers, but it is not clear it's an issue worth breaking the law over. Earlier this year, a neutral state-appointed fact-finder recommended that teachers in the Waterford school district accept a Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance package with a new administrator in place of MESSA. The fact-finder determined that the two health care packages were "substantially equal and without significant differences as to the benefits available."
But the issue of who will administer teachers' health insurance is worth thousands of dollars a year per teacher to MESSA, which has MEA officials serving on its board. MESSA has paid marketing fees to the union in exchange for promoting MESSA to its members and writing MESSA coverage into collective bargaining agreements.
An effective deterrent to illegal strikes should be directed at unions at least as much as teachers, and should avoid the administrative hassles of the current law. Michigan's Public Employee Relations Act should be revised to include new penalties.
Rather than fines, bargaining units that go on strike should have their collective bargaining rights suspended for a period of one to three years. During that time, any collective bargaining agreement in effect should be suspended, and the union should temporarily lose its rights of exclusive representation, allowing the school district to negotiate with teachers individually. This would include the right to collect mandatory membership dues or agency fees. Teachers would retain the protections of tenure and could retain union membership voluntarily. Because the district would only need to show that a strike occurred, the administration and application of the suspension would be much simpler.
The right to bargain collectively comes with responsibilities: a respect for the law and for the people of Michigan, acting through their elected officials, as the final authority over all matters of government, including the pay, benefits and working conditions of government employees. Illegal strikes subvert both, and Michigan would be well within its rights to temporarily withdraw the right to bargain collectively from those who flout the law and the authority of the people.
Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.