New Bills Would Put Teeth Into Ignored Teacher Strike Law

Michigan has banned teacher strikes for nearly 70 years, but they keep happening

Recent sickouts that have kept at least 34,000 students in Detroit Public Schools from attending classes may mean that future sickouts could cost school districts some of their state aid. That's because a three-bill package to put more enforcement powers behind Michigan’s nearly 70-year-old law against teacher strikes has started moving in the Legislature. But as they sit in the Michigan Senate, they may have to wait until efforts to rescue the Detroit school system are played out.

Senate Bills 713, 714 and 715, were introduced in reaction to organized teacher sickout strikes that have recently been shutting down schools in the Detroit district. As many as 64 schools have been forced to close their doors due to the strikes.

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Under the three bills, the state could more quickly penalize teachers and unions for participating in strikes. In addition, school districts that failed to enforce sanctions against striking teachers would forfeit 5 percent of their school aid.

On Feb. 2, the Senate Education Committee passed the three bills and sent them to the floor of the Senate. All four Republican members of the committee voted for the bills. The lone Democrat on the committee, Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, voted against them.

Though the legislative package zipped through the committee, its momentum could be slowed on the Senate floor. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has informed reporters that he is prioritizing other legislation ahead of the bills to strengthen the anti-strike law. That other legislation is Senate bills 710 and 711, which represent Gov. Rick Snyder’s reforms to address the $515 million debt that has DPS facing possible bankruptcy.

Sen. Phil Pavlov, R-St. Clair, the sponsor of Senate Bill 713 and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said it’s difficult to predict how soon the full Senate would take up the teacher strike bills. But he added that he hoped the delay wouldn’t be long.

When asked why Michigan should strengthen anti-teacher strike law, he replied, “Because kids are being forced out of their classrooms." He added, “The sooner we deal with the strikes at DPS the better. It’s important for those kids, because right now, the district is in free fall.”

DPS tried to get a temporary restraining order to force the teachers to return to their jobs. On Jan. 25, Detroit Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens refused to issue the order, but did schedule a preliminary hearing for Feb. 16 to look more deeply into the matter.

Senate Bill 713, sponsored by Pavlov, and Senate Bill 714, sponsored by Sen. David Robertson, R-Grand Blanc, would speed up the process under which teachers would face penalties for participating in a strike and possibly increase the likelihood that they would be penalized.

Senate Bill 715, sponsored by Sen. Joe Hune, R-Hamburg, says that if a district failed to deduct a fine from the salary of a teacher who had violated the law against teacher strikes, after it had been ordered by the state to do so, it would forfeit an amount equal to 5 percent of the total state school aid it was due.

Knezek did not a return a phone call offering the opportunity to comment. However, Sen. Bert Johnson, D-Highland Park, said he opposes the teacher strike legislation.

“When you really look at it closely this legislation sort of goes against the principle behind whistleblower laws,” Johnson said. “These teachers have tried again and again to blow the whistle on the conditions in these schools. Now, out of sheer frustration, they are trying a different way of calling attention to what’s really happening.”

“I also think it’s arrogant for legislators up here in Lansing to think they have any kind of understanding of what’s really going on in the city of Detroit,” Johnson continued. “Here are the Republicans coming forward with politically motivated legislation when what is really needed is to focus on the best ways to deliver services to the schoolchildren of Detroit. I don’t know if we can stop this legislation, but we’re going to do our best to try to stop it.”

Even before the current sickouts in Detroit Public Schools, school employees have skipped work in defiance of the law, with actual punishment almost unheard of. In 2013, Walled Lake Schools had to close because of a bus driver sickout. In 2012, at least four districts closed due to protests over a right-to-work proposal under consideration in the Michigan Legislature. In 2011, West Bloomfield teachers skipped class over a contract dispute.


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