Altering contracts will trigger right-to-work law, according to legal expert
Municipalities throughout the state that signed contracts with their unions to avoid the state's right-to-work law may trigger it anyway if they renegotiate contracts before they expire.
And at least one is committed to doing just that. Southgate Community School District Superintendent William Grusecki said the administration and teachers' union have already agreed to reopen their five-year deal, which was signed a day before the March 27 deadline for the right-to-work law to take effect.
"We will be reopening the contract each year for wages and insurance," Grusecki said in an email.
However, that will allow right-to-work to be enacted, said one legal expert.
"School districts and unions that entered into long-term collective bargaining agreements to avoid the implementation of right-to-work thinking that they could reopen contracts to adjust wages may be in for a surprise," said Derk Wilcox, senior attorney at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. "The law was drafted so that right to work could take effect if a provision of the contract is changed. The alteration of wages or other terms of employment are a 'practice,' which, if altered after the law went into effect, can trigger the application of right-to-work to that long-term collective bargaining agreement. In effect, changes to the collective bargaining agreement are the same as if a new collective bargaining agreement was signed after right-to-work goes into effect."
At least 54 school districts have agreed to contracts before the deadline.
"In effect, these long-term agreements that were meant to get around the right-to-work law have hamstrung both the schools and the unions," Wilcox said. "They hurried into these agreements and now, if they change them, it will be the same as if they hadn't even gone through the trouble — right-to-work will apply and the teachers will finally get the same rights enjoyed by their colleagues throughout the state who no longer have to pay the union or face being fired."
There are numerous examples of municipalities altering contracts.
For example, the Walled Lake Consolidated School District signed four-year deals with three of its unions in 2008 that ran through 2012. During that four years, the district made four amendments and had two "letter of understandings" to change the terms of the original deal with its teachers' union.
In its 2012 deficit elimination plan to the Michigan Department of Education, Southgate officials acknowledged the role of unions in its costs.
When explaining what caused a $1.3 million deficit in 2011, the district said, "primarily the teachers union and the lack of sufficient funding from the State of Michigan."
The district later wrote: "Since 85 percent of the district's expenses are employee based, concessions resulting from negotiations play a massive role in trying to achieve the deficit elimination."
Michigan's right-to-work law states: "An agreement, contract, understanding, or practice between or involving a public employer, labor organization, or bargaining representative that violates subsection (3) is unlawful and unenforceable. This subsection applies only to an agreement, contract, understanding, or practice that takes effect or is extended or renewed after the effective date of the amendatory act that added this subsection."