A Case in Point: MESSA’s Role in the Collective Bargaining Process

Many school districts have also complained about MESSA's infiltration into the collective bargaining process. They contend that MESSA advises the bargaining representatives of the MEA in the same way a trainer coaches the fighter as he spars with his competitor. This third party intrusion into the bargaining process, they contend, is a violation of their right to exclusive negotiations between employees and their employer. Surely, the union would object if school districts involved a council of advisory taxpayers in labor negotiations. Towards the end of the last decade, 15 Michigan school districts filed a complaint when the presence of MESSA in collective bargaining talks began to infringe upon their rights as parties to an agreement. The case was litigated before the Michigan Court of Appeals, where an earlier dismissal was upheld.27

The complaint of the school districts was based upon concerted actions taken by MESSA with the MEA's apparent counsel. In 1985, MESSA changed the underwriter of its health insurance plans from the Equitable Life Assurance Society to Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Michigan. The change in underwriters presented a dilemma to MESSA, because all of its pre-existing contracts with school districts had already identified the Equitable as the underwriter of the group policy. In response, MESSA decided that all MEA local affiliates receiving MESSA coverage had to negotiate the change in underwriters into the contracts with their employers. Without the contractual consent of both parties, MESSA would not change the underwriter to Blue Cross until the next contract renewal period. This action contradicted the precedents of 1964 and 1976, when MESSA unilaterally changed the underwriter of its health insurance plans without the consultation or consent of either its members or its customer school districts.

A notice distributed by MESSA to its members entitled Information Concerning MESSA Health Plans explained MESSA's initiative to involve itself in contract negotiations. The section entitled "Changing From A MESSA/Equitable Plan To A MESSA/Blue Cross Plan" stated in part:

It will be the policy of MESSA that all Super Med plans will continue to be underwritten by Equitable until such time as we receive written notification requesting a change from an Equitable underwritten plan to a Blue Cross underwritten plan. Where MESSA health coverage is provided through a collective bargaining agreement, the written notification to MESSA must be signed by representatives of the employer and the employee group, union, or association. 28 [Original emphasis]

The proposed change in underwriters was to reduce the premium rates previously charged to school districts, since Blue Cross coverage was less expensive than similar coverage from the Equitable. As an incentive to change immediately, MESSA promised school districts that it would waive the rate increase for Equitable plans if districts switched over to Blue Cross. The total cost savings for each district after the change to Blue Cross amounted to 12 percent of premium cost, based upon MESSA's figures .29

If school districts would benefit from the cost savings, then why wouldn't MESSA allow the districts to consent to the cost savings without further negotiations with the union? Furthermore, why did MESSA suddenly decide that it needed the permission of both its members and customer school districts before it could change underwriters when it never needed such consent in the past? The full context of this situation best serves as a clear example of how MESSA can directly impinge upon the collective bargaining process with school districts.

According to testimony provided by Warren Culver, MESSA's current executive director, MESSA felt that local teachers' unions should be given the chance to negotiate new deals with their employer school districts, because new negotiations would provide an excuse for the local unions to seek out additional benefits.30 In fact, many local bargaining units made potential cost savings conditional upon new contract negotiations with their districts. These local bargaining units demanded that the school districts pass along all or part of the cost savings to employees in the form of higher wages or additional benefits. Allegations contained in a charge filed with the Michigan Insurance Bureau in 1985 contend that the MEA, rather than MESSA, ordered this policy.31 Furthermore, it was alleged that the MEA, MESSA, and MEA local bargaining units had discussed strategies whereby MEA locals would attempt to recover premium savings from school districts.

The apparent good-faith intentions of MESSA to include school district input into a major policy decision turned out to be a ploy whereby MESSA would promote the interests of the MEA and its local affiliates by providing another opportunity to negotiate additional benefits. School ' districts were faced with a choice between staying with the Equitable and paying higher premiums, or switching to Blue Cross, paying lower premiums, but having to reopen contract negotiations.

The practice of a union trying to force school districts to share cost savings with union members could be called a vague form of coercion. Beverly Wolkow of the MEA reinforced this possibility in the May 24, 1986 edition of The Voice, when she wrote, "Our conversion to Blue Cross as an underwriter put $20 million in health care savings into other increased benefits in local contracts."32 While trying to pass off a change in underwriters as a favorable reduction in premium costs, MESSA, working on behalf of the MEA, attempted to absorb the cost savings from school districts by increasing the benefits in labor contracts.

It may seem unreasonable to criticize MESSA based upon this single example; nevertheless, school districts have testified that MESSA field service representatives have a prominent advisory role during contract negotiations. In many instances, the school district's bargaining team has found a MESSA representative seated with the MEA's bargaining team during the negotiations. The MEA's own documents have shown that MESSA field representatives actively collaborate with its bargaining representatives, such as one guideline instructing bargainers to "involve MESSA in meetings where bargaining guidelines are established."33