Two years ago, the Michigan Education Association collected signatures from teachers at a school in Birmingham. The teachers wanted the
union to represent them in labor talks, but this was no ordinary union activity. The school in question was Brother Rice High School, which is Roman
Catholic, and none of Michigan's Catholic schools is unionized.
The issue became a legal dispute when the school objected to
the MEA’s representing its employees. Last week, the Michigan Court of Appeals
weighed in on the case, holding that labor unions cannot organize teachers at
Catholic schools in Michigan. The decision is an important setback for the MEA in its efforts to extend its influence and income.
The MEA had in fact received a sufficient number of signatures
from teachers at Brother Rice High School to allow an election to determine
whether it would become the teachers’ exclusive bargaining representative (a
union gains this power when more than half of the employees voting agree to unionize). The MEA then petitioned the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to set the
Brother Rice, in turn, asserted that the formation of a
teachers union violated its First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution,
suggesting that the union’s presence at Brother Rice would compromise its
religious mission. The school also argued that the election was not appropriate
under Michigan law. Nevertheless, the state Employment Relations Commission scheduled the election, which the Court of
Appeals then postponed while it considered the case.
In the court's ruling in Michigan Education Association v. Christian Brothers
Institute of Michigan, the judges' opinion initially noted that religion
permeates the educational experience at Brother Rice. It realized that
substantial First Amendment concerns would be involved if the MEA were allowed
to unionize the teachers, although it did not rule on that specific issue.
Instead, the court simply held that Michigan’s labor law was
similar to federal labor law. Since the United States Supreme Court had decided
in National Labor Relations Board v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago that federal
labor law prevented Catholic school teachers from being unionized, the state
Court of Appeals concluded that the rationale in the Catholic Bishop ruling was persuasive in
this case, as well.
The Court of Appeals’ opinion maintains the status quo, given
that before this lawsuit, there were no teachers unions in Michigan’s Catholic
schools. Nevertheless, this is a big loss for the MEA unless the decision is
overruled by the Michigan Supreme Court.
The union cannot now attempt to generate more dues by
unionizing Catholic school teachers. Almost all public school teachers are
already represented by either the MEA or the Detroit Federation of Teachers, and the
Catholic schools were seen as a remaining potential source of revenue.
The ruling also has important implications for the state’s
Catholic schools. If the MEA had been able to establish a foothold in their labor negotiations, it would likely have driven up employee costs, forcing at least some of
the schools, which generally operate on a bare-bones budget, to close. Ultimately, the Court of Appeals' ruling recognized religious education’s unique place in our society, and it has thereby prevented serious harm.
Patrick J. Wright is senior legal analyst at the Mackinac
Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in
Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted,
provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.