Teachers vote to remove union from charter school

"It is important we focus on what is best for children"

MEA Headquarters

The teachers of Island City Academy, a charter school in Eaton Rapids near Lansing, voted on Oct. 29 to remove the Michigan Education Association (MEA) as their bargaining representative. The vote was nearly unanimous, with 12 voting to decertify the union and 1 favoring its retention. The teachers said they did not like the MEA's adversarial approach to relations between teachers and the school's management.

"It is important that we focus on what is best for children," says Janelle Leonard, a first- and second-grade teacher at Island City.

"My focus, as a teacher, has always been on what is best for children and I hope now that focus will be our collective priority," agreed Sarah Coons, another teacher at the academy.

The MEA organized the teachers at Island City Academy in August 2000 by a 6-5 vote. Union organizer David Crim said Island City teachers approached him in early June of that year about joining the MEA. "Their major concern was that they were having problems with the administration of the school," he told Michigan Education Report.

However, by the beginning of the 2001-02 school year, most of the teachers who originally voted to be represented by the labor union had resigned from the school. The MEA had filed an unfair labor practice against Island City's board of directors for not bargaining with the union for six months. That was when several of the current teachers approached an alternative teachers' association, the Association of American Educators, to explore other representation options.

The teachers publicly protested, in a petition to the board, that "the [MEA] is seeking to protect its own agenda and... is causing the district to spend precious resources of time and money that could be used to improve the compensation of teachers or to better meet the classroom instruction needs of students." The petition asked the school board to withdraw recognition of the union and urged the MEA to withdraw the unfair labor practice complaint that had delayed the vote to remove the MEA.

The MEA's Crim believes that one factor in particular led to the removal of the union. "I think the biggest contributing factor was that there was a 70-percent turnover rate in teachers at the school," he told MER. "The vast majority of teachers who brought in the MEA are no longer at the school."

The decertification of the MEA as the teachers' representative clears the way for the teachers to negotiate their wages and other work issues directly with school administrators. "We are glad that we can focus our energies and resources into what we do best-educating children," said Coons. Had the teachers not decertified the union, Crim said that teachers would have been required to pay $580 per school year in union dues.

Attempts to decertify the MEA have also occurred in traditional public school systems. In 1998, Branch County Intermediate School District employees tried to terminate their relationship with the MEA. Among the grievances cited by dissatisfied teachers as the reason for the referendum was the complaint that most had not seen an MEA representative during the entire three-year period of their current contract with the school district. Despite early support among employees throughout the southern Michigan district, the vote to decertify the MEA failed 30 to 16.

The MEA has stepped up efforts to unionize charter school teachers. Mid-Michigan Public School Academy in Lansing became the largest unionized charter school in the nation when teachers there voted to join the MEA in January 2000. Thirty-eight teachers voted to unionize at the 1,200-student charter school while 21 teachers either opposed union representation or abstained. Since then, student enrollment has plummeted to fewer than 400 students. In recent months, charter teachers in Saginaw, Midland, and Pontiac have thwarted efforts by the MEA to unionize their schools.

Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies says, "It's fortunate, in the case at Island City Academy, that the teachers had a professional choice regarding a union, unions who have historically been opposed to charter public schools in Michigan. We think this is an indication that teachers are interested in options-professional options for themselves and education options for their students."

Teachers who want to learn more about their legal rights regarding choices in union representation can receive free information from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Call 1-800-22-IDEAS and ask for the brochure, "My Union Doesn't Represent Me! What Are My Choices?" or visit www.mackinac.org/article.asp?ID=4101.