'Cause You Know It Don't Matter Anyway

Why the MEA keeps going too far

You’re a rich girl and you’ve gone too far,
‘Cause you know it don’t matter anyway
You can rely on the old man’s money,
You can rely on the old man’s money …

Reading Iris Salters’ latest article in the Detroit News, one has to understand the position the Michigan Education Association president is in. That position can be summed up in one word: secure.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

That word doesn’t apply to a lot of people in Michigan right now. The state has struggled for years with stubbornly high unemployment, currently at 14.1 percent. While most Michiganians who want work do have jobs, many are underemployed, toiling at jobs that don’t make the most of their knowledge and skills, or they contend with furloughs and pay cuts. Or at the very least, they watch warily for signs that their company is losing business and contemplating layoffs. The passage of the national health care bill, with its complex rules and enormous expenses, only adds to the uncertainty. In government, workers contend with unpaid furloughs and contemplate early retirement. Even elected officials must keep a watchful eye on an increasingly angry electorate.

Such threats are distant rumors by the time a union official climbs up to the level that Salters occupies — especially if that union represents mainly government employees. The MEA is effectively guaranteed tens of millions of dollars in revenue annually by school districts that agree to forced union dues as a condition of employment. Combine that with lax union governance and financial reporting standards, and what you have is quite possibly the safest job in the state. And Salters' wages are only going up: Last year she got a $30,000 raise, bringing her salary up to almost $240,000.

So one should not be at all surprised to see that Salters can bemoan that members of her union have lost their jobs — workers her union is charged with representing — and not give a hint of accepting any responsibility for their plight. After all, Salters and most of those around her got hefty raises. Why should any of them doubt that their doing their jobs well? There’s a big disconnect between results and rewards here. As Hall and Oates might have put it:

High and dry, and out of the rain
It’s so easy to hurt others when you can’t feel pain!

Instead of asking if she or the union might have done more to protect its members, Iris Salters blames privatization. But privatization is not something that emerges from a vacuum; school districts turn to privatization because it helps them save money, something that is in short supply.

There are lots of ways that the MEA could have eased the financial pressures on school districts. It could stop pressuring districts into buying overpriced Blue Cross/Blue Shield health insurance through its preferred administrator, MESSA. It could drop its resistance to reforms that the state Legislature approved as part of its application for Race to the Top and improve the chances that school districts will receive these federal funds. Or it could accept concessions that would make union employees competitive.

But all of these would mean the MEA loosening its grip on public education in Michigan, and why should we expect MEA’s leadership to accept that? After all, their jobs are safe, they’re getting raises, the system rewards them, so whatever has gone wrong is not their problem.

Under Iris Salters’ leadership, the MEA has done at least as much to eliminate these jobs as privatization has. MEA’s brass has gone too far, but from their perspective, it doesn’t matter anyway.

Throughout Michigan, people from all walks of life — workers, supervisors, business owners, taxpayers and school boards — are making hard decisions under difficult circumstances. Businesses, school functions and jobs are all on the line, and the MEA’s inflexibility has made many of those choices even more difficult. There is a bitter irony in seeing the president of the state’s most powerful union lecture the people of Michigan about decisions she disapproves of from her perch in one of the safest jobs in the state.