Teachers at a Lansing public school have ratified a historic contract with a unique voluntary union membership provision that permits individual teachers to decide whether or not to financially support the Michigan Education Association (MEA), the union a majority of teachers chose to represent them. Although all Michigan public school employees can today refuse union membership regardless of contract provisions, all other district contracts require employees to be fired if they refuse to pay a fee, regardless of membership status.
Mid-Michigan Public School Academy and the local MEA union affiliate signed the contract on Jan. 8, after it was unanimously ratified by teachers at a December meeting. The contract specifies that union dues, which average about $600 annually, will be deducted only after a teacher has chosen to join the union. The Mid-Michigan Academy is believed to be the only public school in the state with such an arrangement. The contract will remain in effect for the remainder of this school year.
That this option even exists is news to many school officials.
"When negotiating contracts with the union, most public school board members are unaware that they do not have to agree to a compulsory support or `union security' clause," said Lori Yaklin, executive director of the Michigan School Board Leaders Association. "Union membership and support should be an individual decision, and school board members around the state should learn from Mid-Michigan academy's voluntary arrangement."
The contract has been praised by both school and union officials.
"This contract gives the teacher group some legitimacy, and is also friendly to effective administration," said Mid-Michigan academy Superintendent Ned Curtis.
"Since I've taken over leadership of the academy in August, I've been impressed with the professionalism of the teaching staff, and I don't expect that to change."
MEA Uniserv Director James Boersma, who led negotiations for the union, is optimistic about future negotiations. "I think we've developed a fairly good working relationship with the board and the administration, and that's a critical part of labor negotiations," he said.
Dan Quisenberry, president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, believes that the voluntary membership provision is a good deal for Mid-Michigan's 59 teachers as well.
"Charter schools are all about options, not just for parents and their children but for teachers as well," he said. "Options provide flexibility for professional educators, giving them choices in how they work with the union. Those choices have the potential to improve relations between teachers and administration. It speaks well of the board, the MEA, and the teachers that they have the creativity and courage to be innovative like this."
Both opponents and supporters of voluntary support provisions in contracts have their arguments. Unions argue that since they are required by law to represent all employees in the bargaining unit, and since at least at one time a majority of teachers voted to adopt the union, they should receive compensation for their services. When support is voluntary, they claim, there will be "free riders"-employees who enjoy the benefits of union services without paying the cost.
Opponents of voluntary support provisions also claim that unions are responsible for Michigan teacher salary and benefits levels being among the highest in the nation, which they say aids in recruiting quality faculty and staff. They also claim that unions protect employees from discrimination or other unfair practices by employers.
Teachers who support voluntary provisions, however, say that the union is more of a hindrance than a help and point out that many teachers vote against union representation in the first place. In the case of Mid-Michigan, 25 percent of teachers opposed the union in the January 2000 certification vote, which made the school the first unionized university-chartered school in Michigan. In October 2001, teachers at the Island City Academy-then the second and only other unionized university-chartered school-voted 12 to 1 to oust the MEA union after collecting enough petition signatures to call for a decertification election.
Teachers may also object to the union seniority system, which prevents them from being financially rewarded for their performance, or rigid work rules that stifle innovation and advancement. Many teachers also oppose being forced to fund union political activities through compulsory dues. The last internal MEA survey of its membership made public found that 69 percent of teachers and 86 percent of leaders are bothered that "the MEA takes stands I do not agree with." The 1989 survey, disclosed in a lawsuit brought against the union by an educator who opposed having dues used for political purposes, found that 64 percent of teachers are bothered that "the MEA is mainly committed to union goals, not professional goals for education."
But the Mid-Michigan Education Association (MMEA), the local union representing teachers, intends to bargain for the standard compulsory fee provision when talks begin on a new contract. MMEA President Felicia Underhill stated that the union has "not started discussing the dues yet. We will be meeting in February and we will be bringing up some of those issues then." As for teachers who elect not to join the MEA, "they will be represented either way," according to Underhill.
James Goenner, director of the Central Michigan University Charter Schools office, which issued Mid-Michigan academy its charter and oversees the school's operations, said he was impressed by the contract.
According to Goenner, the ratification vote was "a very positive sign for us in that the charter school board, its teachers, and the MEA could come to a mutually agreeable contract that keeps kids first."