Making Michigan Right-to-Work: Encouraging School Districts to Follow the Law

Making Michigan Right-to-Work cover
Read Audrey's study online at Mackinac.org/s2014-04

When Michigan’s right-to-work law was passed in December 2012, many hoped the law would encourage union responsibility. Under the statute, local unions would no longer be able to take their members’ dues for granted, and would instead have to prove their worth to members.

Unfortunately, instead of responding with a positive campaign to retain member teachers, school district unions have worked in conjunction with the Michigan Education Association to avoid and circumvent the law. Many times, teachers suffer as a result.

For example, Wyoming teachers lost as much as $12,700 in salary and concessions when their local union chose to preserve union dues instead of trying to avoid teacher pay cuts. In 2013, the Kent County Education Association asked the Wyoming school district to keep language in the collective bargaining agreement stating that teachers must pay union dues as a condition of employment. The KCEA prioritized keeping this language above all else.

Wyoming is one of the many school districts with a teacher collective bargaining agreement that raises legal or policy questions under Michigan’s right-to-work law. These districts were identified in the Mackinac Center’s latest policy study, “Making Michigan Right-to-Work: Implementation Problems in Public Schools,” available at: (www.mackinac.org/20448). This research is part of the Center’s continued effort to review school district responses to state collective bargaining reform laws.

“Making Michigan Right-to-Work” shows how school districts responded to Public Act 349, the right-to-work law for public employees. The Mackinac Center reviewed more than 500 teacher collective bargaining agreements to determine whether districts complied with or avoided PA 349. This research, conducted in the summer of 2014, provides the first-ever look at how districts and unions chose to follow ­— or not — the law.

Wyoming is one of the districts identified in this research: Though Wyoming’s contract says otherwise, teachers are actually free to leave the union. Wyoming’s contract took effect after right-to-work became law, making the mandatory dues provision unenforceable. In fact, district officials have refused requests from the KCEA to fire school employees for failing to pay union dues.

Incredibly, the KCEA agreed to large salary reductions simply for the appearance that teachers still have to pay union dues.

The Center’s study found legal and policy issues with 25 percent of teacher collective bargaining agreements that took effect after March 28, 2013. These 57 districts employ more than 10,000 teachers, who may have the ability to leave their union, despite contrary language in their district collective bargaining agreement.

Legal and policy issues identified in the “Making Michigan Right-to-Work” study include:

  • Illegal language: Twenty-three districts approved contracts after March 28, 2013, that contain mandatory dues language.

  • Separate agency fee agreements: Eight districts created separate “agency fee agreements” that are typically longer in duration than the collective bargaining agreements and require teachers to continue to pay dues. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is currently representing school employees in two of these districts who say their district’s agency fee agreement is illegal.

  • Delayed effective dates: Fifteen districts approved contracts prior to March 28, 2013, but which took effect months later. Wyoming is one of these districts.

  • Split effective dates: Five districts approved collective bargaining agreements with an earlier effective date for the portion of the agreement that requires teachers to financially support the union, and a later effective date for the remainder of the contract.

  • Modified contracts: At least six districts have modified their collective bargaining agreements after March 28, 2013, without removing mandatory dues language.

The largest number of districts identified are those that have illegal language in their collective bargaining agreements. These districts kept language stating that teachers must pay union dues as a condition of employment, even though the district agreed to the contract after PA 349 took effect. Oftentimes, district school boards approved these illegal contracts unanimously.

As the result of Center research, some district officials have begun work to remove illegal language and to inform teachers that they are, in fact, able to choose whether to financially support the union.

One of the larger districts with illegal contract language is Monroe. Monroe teachers looking at their contract will see a line stating that their “services…shall be discontinued at the end of the current school year,” if they fail to pay union dues. Yet, the district agreed to its collective bargaining agreement in March 2014, a full year after the right-to-work law took effect.

When contacted by the Center, Monroe Assistant Superintendent Ryan McLeod said the contract language stating that teachers must financially support the Monroe City Education Association “absolutely should be taken out.”

Northport Superintendent Chris Parker agreed that the mandatory dues language the Center identified in his district’s contract was illegal. He told the Center he would be asking the Northport Education Association to send out a letter to teachers explaining that they are free to leave the union.

Chassell Township Superintendent Christopher Davidson told the Center that he would be contacting the Chassell Township teachers union president and Chassell school board president in order to remove the language from the district’s collective bargaining agreement.

So far, approximately one-quarter of Michigan school districts may not be following PA 349 as it was intended. As a result, district officials are helping create the opportunity for teachers to be misled. For the thousands of Michigan teachers in these districts, there is a real need for guidance or additional penalties for districts that fail to abide by PA 349.

The Mackinac Center is continuing to monitor whether districts are complying with collective bargaining reform laws. “Making Michigan Right-to-Work” is our latest effort.  Earlier this spring, we released research reviewing district compliance with a state law prohibiting collective bargaining over teacher placement and hiring practices. That study motivated state legislators to require that districts follow those laws in order to access additional state funding.

We hope that school district officials throughout the state will follow the example of the Monroe, Northport and Chassell Township school districts and make sure their union contracts reflect the fact that Michigan is a right-to-work state. Otherwise, additional penalties for failing to follow the law may be needed.