Michigan Public School Teachers Launch a Non-Union Revolution

Public schools and their employees don't win many battles against the Michigan Education Association (MEA) union, the political and financial behemoth that dominates Michigan public education. So when teachers and their schools score two major victories in three months, it's time to sit up and take notice of a new dynamic.

The first shock came in October 2001, when teachers at Island City Academy, a public school in Eaton Rapids, voted 12-1 to oust the MEA as their union. This marked the first time in anyone's memory that the MEA was kicked out by teachers, who believed they were better equipped to deal with school management as independent professionals than with a union go-between. In a petition, the teachers explained that "the union 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."

Another school delivered the second blow in January 2002, when teachers at Lansing's Mid-Michigan Public School Academy approved a contract, unique in Michigan, that allows teachers to decide without compulsion whether or not to financially support the union. All other public school union contracts contain "compulsory support" clauses that require employees to pay approximately $600 annually to the union, although a few contracts permit this amount to go to a designated charity.

Most school board members don't know the option for a non-compulsory support provision exists. There are usually significant numbers of employees in any district who oppose unionization, but most school boards blindly agree to contracts that force all employees to fund the union. Even boards aware of their options succumb to union pressure and intimidation. Either way, forced support further enshrines the union in the workplace and provides compulsory income that the union uses to battle public school managers in negotiations and day-to-day operations.

Mid-Michigan's board dismissed the union's claim that not forcing employees to financially support the union creates "free riders," workers who benefit from union services without paying for them.

Board members recalled that 25 percent of the teachers voted against union representation when it was approved in January 2000. Why, they reasoned, should they force teachers to financially support an organization that many believe does not act in their best interests?

It's no coincidence that these victories against compulsory unionism happened in charter schools, although school boards and teachers at traditional public schools can do the same. Why are charter schools leading the way in innovative labor relations? There are three reasons, each of which reflect a positive sign for the future of Michigan education.

First, charter schools attract teachers who appreciate the professional autonomy they find in a non-union setting. When teachers are able to taste true independence and professionalism, they have little desire for the antiquated baggage of industrial-era compulsory unionism that still dominates traditional government schools.

Second, charter schools must earn the attendance of each student. Unlike traditional public schools, children aren't assigned to charter schools based on residence. To attract students, charters must be free of the expensive overhead and inefficient work rules that characterize traditional government schools. Charters are accountable directly to parents, and survive only if they please these customers by offering a superior education to their children. They recognize that union tactics that drive up costs and reduce professionalism would kill their efforts.

Third, Michigan charter school board members are appointed by charter holders rather than being subject to public elections. This insulates boards from the political pressure and intimidation that the MEA uses to browbeat elected school boards into submission. This is also a major reason why the MEA fought to oppose Michigan's first charter schools in 1993, and why it fights today to prevent more from opening.

Michigan's increasingly competitive system of school choice is awakening citizens to the detrimental effect that compulsory unionism is having on public education. Traditional public schools are realizing that they must stand up to union domination to control costs, keep teachers, and end the exodus of students. In the end, the only losers will be labor unions that owe their existence to forced support rather than their own merits.

Joseph P. Overton, J.D., is senior vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute in Midland, Mich.