Initial 'Right-to-Teach' Bill Has Problems

Singling out the MEA may even let the union escape

A proposed "right-to-teach" bill has been introduced in the Michigan Senate by Sens. Arlan Meekhof, Phil Pavlov and Randy Richardville. Unfortunately, the bill may backfire because it focuses too much on the MEA.  

A broad right-to-work law, in which all employees throughout the state would have the freedom to choose for themselves whether to support a union, would clearly be best for Michigan. Still, there is an entirely reasonable case to be made for starting with teachers in the public schools: Teachers are professionals, and their craft is especially ill-suited to industrial unionism. The need for reform in public education is especially pressing.

This rationale applies if right-to-teach is just what the name implies: right-to-work for public school teachers. As submitted, the bill fails to protect all public school teachers, however. Instead, it applies only to public school unions with more than 50,000 members (presumably in the state). That would mean the Michigan Education Association — and nobody else.

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The impulse to single out the MEA is understandable; the state's largest school employee union is arguably the most powerful lobbying group in Michigan, and through its targeted recall campaigns, it has set itself up as the nemesis of the current legislative majority. Its complicated and cozy relationship with the health insurance administrator MESSA has added to the cost of school employee health care benefits, a substantial financial burden for many Michigan school districts.

But as submitted, the "right-to-teach" bill looks too much like political payback. In fact, by continuing to allow forced union dues in public education, the bill leaves the MEA with an out: shed just enough local school unions to get under the 50,000-member threshhold. The teachers union wouldn't necessarily need to become smaller in practical terms — just restructure things to avoid the 50,000-member limit. Locals could be affiliated under a nominally independent group that just happens to be staffed with old MEA people. Access to MESSA-brokered health insurance could also be used to keep the "breakaway" group in line. Or the NEA might try to set up a second affiliate in Michigan and transfer locals there. Moreover, the bill would provide no relief to teachers or schoolchildren in what might be the most dysfunctional school district in the nation: Detroit, where teachers are represented by an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

The Senate majority would do better to stand on the principle that workers should not be forced to financially support a union that they do not agree with and that might not serve their best interests. If the senators want to start with teachers, that's defensible, but starting with a particular union — even one as problematic as the MEA — looks too much like partisan politics and creates ways for the MEA to wriggle free.