Students in the Bargain

In 2005, at the western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, more than 100 students at Ironwood’s Wright High School came to class wearing maroon T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase "What About Us?"[2] That question, asked during heated contract negotiations between their teachers and local school board, creatively brought home important issues that often get lost during collective bargaining battles.

Donald Wheaton: “I would encourage other school boards to take an honest look at what is in the best interest of the kids and not what’s easy and expedient. You’re there for children. If you’re there for any other reason, you don’t belong there.”

When students ask, "What about us?" they are saying that they do not appreciate being caught in the middle of labor disputes. They are also signaling to all parties that our public education system should ultimately be about students and their preparation for higher education or the job market. Perhaps subconsciously they also are implying that Michigan’s system of public education should not be seen as a jobs program for adults, whether board members, teachers, custodians or other support staff.

The students raised a valid point. School boards and educators have an obligation to see to it that labor disputes do not, at the very least, interfere with the education of students. However, given the complexity of Michigan’s law and labor dynamics, this is — of course — easier to know than to put into practice. Indeed, more than 52,000 teachers and support personnel, constituting almost 40 percent of all active Michigan Education Association members, began the 2005 school year without contracts. At the approach of 2006, more than 120 teacher and education support personnel units had been without contracts for more than a year. In the winter of 2005, only 23 percent of MEA units negotiating contracts had reached agreements with their respective school districts.[3]

Clearly, as the students in Ironwood saw, the distraction of heated negotiations and unfinished contracts is not merely academic. It affects lives.

The impact that mandatory collective bargaining has on public education has gone unexamined for far too long. As noted by researchers Howard Fuller and George Mitchell, "Though the advent of collective bargaining represents a significant development in the history of American education, most research and commentary about our schools focuses on other matters."[4] Eva Moskowitz, former member of the New York City Council and current executive director of the Harlem Success Charter School, goes even further:

"The problem with the Soviet Union was not its leaders or its employees; it was the closed, uncompetitive economic system that stifled innovation. We have the Soviet equivalent in our schools; it’s a system that shuns competition and thwarts change. But in America it’s the collective bargaining agreements that are the glue keeping the monopoly together."[5]

We agree. Collective bargaining has become a significant deterrent to educational quality. Public education is not well-served by industrial-style employee management. However, mandatory collective bargaining is a reality in Michigan, and until policymakers act to alleviate some of the problems, school boards and the relevant employee unions can and must do a better job of hammering out the necessary contracts. The first step in doing so is obtaining a thorough grasp of Michigan law and the dynamics of public-sector collective bargaining.