The success of the school employee labor unions in influencing traditional government schools has coincided with today's highly politicized system of schooling. The effect of public-sector unionization on these schools is important for understanding why the MEA and MFT have strong incentives to oppose school choice.
Mandatory collective bargaining laws including PERA have granted unions tremendous power to control and influence many crucial school policies. Union political operatives, using teacher dues, are involved at all levels of school politics, governance, and finance. They contribute campaign funds to candidates who promise to pursue union interests. They lobby the legislature, where appropriations are made and where laws are passed. They participate in school board elections and school board proceedings. They help establish the criteria for who may or may not become a teacher. They are involved in the selection procedure for school district superintendents. In fact, the provisions in the typical collective bargaining agreement between unions and school districts are all-encompassing and affect the day-to-day operations of local schools in many ways.
The Michigan School Board Leaders Association emphasizes that, "Parents are the ultimate guardians of their children's education" and "[c]hildren are more important than the system."
The politicization of government schools has been exacerbated by school employee labor unions. As noted previously, in order to teach in Michigan's government schools, one must contribute a portion of one's paycheck to a labor union. Although teachers are often not informed of their right to resign from a union and not pay dues for political activities, unions are able to use members' money to financially support candidates who promise to support union interests. Both the MEA and MFT have helped to successfully elect Democratic and Republican candidates to the Michigan Legislature.
Once in office, union-backed public officials enact policies that benefit government employees and labor unions, including approval of labor contracts that force teachers to financially support the labor union whether or not they agree with its policies; maintain and promote compulsory unionism; increase tax-funded wages and benefits for government employees; and oppose privatization, even when non-union, private-sector workers can provide better services at lower cost to taxpayers.
The tendency of school employee labor unions to politicize education has contributed to a $13 billion annual state and local tax bill to fund Michigan's traditional government schools. Despite routine complaints by labor unions that education is underfunded, traditional government school funding has continually increased since 1990. Fiscal Year 2000 marks the third consecutive year that the state spends more on K-12 government schooling than it does on the entire general fund budget.24
Salaries and benefits for school employees account for the largest portion of these funds. However, the majority of Michigan government school employees are actually non-teachers that is, cooks, janitors, bus drivers, and other non-instructional staff. Teachers comprise only 45.2 percent of all Michigan government school personnel, the lowest percentage of any state (see Chart 3). Among all states, teachers average 52.1 percent of government school employees. Michigan is one of only seven states whose schools employ more non-teachers than teachers.25
School non-instructional personnel also belong to labor unions and must pay dues as a condition of their employment. Unions use the dues of both teachers and non-teachers for many things, including collective bargaining, lobbying elected officials, contributing to political candidates' campaigns for office, defending members in legal trouble, advancing political or social agendas that are often unrelated to education, and other activities.
The MEA, Michigan's largest school employee union, has benefited the most from the symbiotic relationship between government schools and public-sector unionization. From September 1, 1997, to August 31, 1998, the MEA's operating budget was over $86 million. Of that amount, $45,396,267 was garnered from dues-paying members. Salaries and benefits for MEA employees for the same period were over $31 million.26
MEA officials' salaries are generous. In the year beginning in September 1997, MEA President Julius Maddox received over $175,000 in salary alone (excluding benefits) more than 3.5 times the average salary received by the Michigan teachers his union represents. This salary placed Mr. Maddox in the top one percent of American income-earners. Including Mr. Maddox, 110 of MEA's 297 staff members received over $100,000 in salary and expenses during the same one-year period.28
The MEA also derives non-dues income from union-owned operations. For example, the MEA receives large sums of taxpayer money each year through school district health-insurance payments to the Michigan Education Special Services Association (MESSA), the MEA's wholly owned insurance subsidiary. This arm of the MEA brought in $360 million in 1992 premiums alone29 and claims more than 73 percent of Michigan's public school districts as "customers."30 Despite comparable and less expensive alternatives to MESSA coverage, the MEA bargains its own health insurance into district contracts.
The financial strength and political power of school employee labor unions is not limited to Lansing. It also consists of local power, which comes from the election of union-friendly school board members and the help of the voting and persuasive power of a large union membership.
Van Buren Public Schools Trustee Thomas Bowles cites the MEA's influence on the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB) as a primary reason for chairing an alternative school board member organization for government, charter, and private schools, the Michigan School Board Leaders Association (MSBLA). MASB positions tend to mirror MEA policies, but MSBLA emphasizes that, "Parents are the ultimate guardians of their children's education" and "[c]hildren are more important than the system."31
As shown above, public-sector unionization has allowed school employee labor unions to monopolize the delivery of traditional government education in the state of Michigan. The politicization of traditional government schools has created a system that the MEA and MFT have strong financial and political incentives to preserve. Barring a change in the way the unions relate to teachers and administrators, their future success and influence depends on their ability to maintain control of, and resist changes to, this politicized system.