A Force to be Reckoned With — The Michigan Education Association

The most formidable union in the state of Michigan has nothing to do with auto workers, teamsters, service employees, or food workers. Although it is merely a state affiliate of a national organization, it happens to be the most powerful of the state affiliates, having provided the national union with its current two top executive officers. It has the ability to coordinate shutdowns of school districts, as it did to the Kalkaska schools in March of 1993.1 It can force membership on anyone who is eligible through the "agency shop" and collective bargaining laws which it helped establish. Its members often disregard the law, by striking in plain violation of Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act.2 It need not fear retribution from Michigan's lawmakers, since it manipulates the political process through campaign contributions. In fact, it has one of the wealthiest political action communities in the state, sharing millions of dollars with its political allies. (See Appendix I for a list of legislators who receive MEA support). In 1988, for example, it was the largest single contributor to a petition drive in support of Medicaid-funded abortions. In 1989, it spent $1.5 million to promote an increase in the state sales tax. Many of its members participate on decision-making bodies throughout Michigan, such as Barbara Roberts Mason, who is on the State Board of Education. It organizes boycotts of major Michigan corporations, as it did it 1981, when it began a boycott of the Amway Corporation.

Michigan's most formidable union is the labor representative of some 120,000 public school employees-the Michigan Education Association. A state affiliate of the National Education Association, the MEA is the larger of Michigan's two statewide teachers’ unions. Ever since the widespread unionization of public employees in the early 1960s, the teachers' unions have gained considerable control over public school teachers in the state of Michigan by compelling them to join their ranks. And the cost has not been cheap. School district funds are continually diverted from classrooms in order to pay for contract negotiations, strike costs, lawyer fees, litigation expenses from labor disputes, and other union-prompted expenditures. Although it contends otherwise, the MEA often puts the concerns of its members before the concerns of students, as demonstrated by outbreaks of illegal teacher strikes, school district closings, increasing salaries often at the expense of other programs, and a lobbying division with only a secondary concern for education quality.

As mentioned previously, the strength of the MEA dates back to the 1960s, when the MEA leadership discovered a new agenda and new ways of acquiring influence. Keith Geiger, Terry Herndon, and Don Cameron were the three labor activists who turned the MEA from a professional association into a militant labor union, and eventually did the same thing for the NEA.

The MEA is distinguished from other teachers' unions in the sense that it not only represents the interests of teachers in contract negotiations, it also operates a multimillion dollar conglomerate out of three interconnected office buildings in East Lansing. The three subsidiary operations of the MEA provide millions of dollars in revenue to the union, with activities ranging from administration of insurance benefits to data processing.3 In addition, the property holdings and capital of the subsidiaries provide the MEA with even greater equity and resources. But aside from tangible benefits, the subsidiaries also give the MEA a powerful way to manipulate its membership and spread its range of influence throughout the state.