The Dynamics of Public-Sector Bargaining

Michigan has, not surprisingly, a unique and lengthy history of labor union activity that continues to the present time. According to the latest figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, union membership across the nation has declined to only 12.5 percent of wage and salaried employees.[17] In Michigan, however, a full 20.5 percent of all workers belong to labor unions, behind only New York, Hawaii and Alaska in union membership rates.[18] Moreover, according to Linda Kaboolian of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, "Public education has, by every measure, the highest density of membership and coverage by collective bargaining of any industry, public or private."[19] All but one of Michigan’s conventional public school districts have union contracts covering their certified teachers.[ii]

Historically, a labor union’s leverage to obtain the most favorable terms of employment derives from its government-sanctioned ability to organize and bargain as a group, even if some in that group object. The union is permitted by law to take action to further its position and, if necessary, legally withhold the group’s labor until its demands are met.[20] An employer’s strength, put generally, lies in the ability to wait out or replace striking workers. Accordingly, a union’s bargaining strength ultimately depends in part on how well an employer is capable of coping without the presence of organized employees.

In the private sector, a union’s potential effectiveness is therefore a reflection of the employer’s competition, ability to attract enough replacement workers in the event of a strike, and current financial condition. In the public sector, the dynamics are different.

Donald Wheaton: “A school board member must be courageous and must be willing to suffer the slings and arrows that you will inevitably get. If you are soft-skinned or thin-skinned, and if you can’t stand the criticism, you don’t belong in a school board seat. It’s that simple.”

Unions representing public employees, in comparison to their private brethren, are under several constraints. The financing of public education (and hence education budgets), depends on government tax revenues established by law. School governance itself is established in many respects by legislative decree. Both of these factors stand in contrast to the market-driven environment of the private sector and affect the positions that the parties can take in negotiations. Public employee unions are also ostensibly prohibited from striking and in that regard are weaker than their private-sector counterparts. On the other hand, public-sector unions possess unique bargaining weapons that can yield significant results.

Unlike private companies, public employers are prohibited by Michigan law from locking out employees. A school board engaged in heated negotiations after a contract has expired cannot simply shut the doors and tell the employees to go home. An education union thus enjoys the advantage of knowing that neither the students nor the demand for teachers will go away, and that a school board must eventually come to agreeable terms. From a bargaining perspective, this puts school boards in a difficult situation, because both the public and the law require schools to be kept open, even if a union is making unreasonable demands.

This is why, for example, 1,724 of 6,543 teachers in Detroit can stage a sickout that closes 54 schools and not face immediate repercussions.[21] In almost any other context, such employees would likely find themselves unemployed. The nature of public education makes such action practically impossible.

Another dynamic unique to the public sector, and perhaps the source of the greatest leverage for a public education union, arises from the political nature of public school management. In addition to other tools labor may employ through concerted action like pickets, public education unions also enjoy the opportunity to generate direct political pressure on their counterparts at the bargaining table.

Connie Gillette: “The board has to have some kind of idea of what to expect in bargaining. Even though I thought we did a good job of preparing our board for what was ahead, there was no way that we could have explained to them the depth of what they would encounter. We had gone through the list of what pressure tactics to expect and everyone felt they were prepared for what was ahead. It takes very strong board members to endure what our board did for such a long period of time. The most difficult time for them was when board meetings were filled with 20-25 teachers and other staff members who stood up during public comment time and made personal attacks and hateful comments against central office administrators and board members. They accused board members of not caring about kids and disrespecting teachers. Many parents and community members told the superintendent, board members and me that they were 100 percent supportive of us, but didn’t feel comfortable coming to board meetings and speaking publicly because of reprisal from the union members. Thus, even though people were telling board members they were doing the right thing and they had tremendous support, the only voices that were publicly heard were those standing up at the board meetings with negative attacks toward us all.”

Education unions know that, unlike the president of an automobile manufacturer, school board members achieve their positions by a vote of the people.[22] Because of union members’ involvement with a community’s children, the unions also know that their teachers have a special relationship with the voting public. These dynamics enhance a union’s ability to draw the community to its side during contract negotiations. In many situations, the actual dispute at issue is hardly discussed. Signs spring up urging support for teachers, and the community often responds positively. For example, during labor negotiations in Holland[iii] over health care coverage in the fall of 2005, green signs appeared proclaiming, "Support Our Teachers."

School board elections and recall petitions can put intense political pressure on a board member to capitulate. In many cases, board members owe their seats to the work of the teachers union. In fact, teachers unions are reportedly "the most active interest group in board elections; almost 60 percent of board members nationwide say the teachers unions are ‘very active’ or ‘somewhat active’ in their local elections."[23] Board members wield no similar power to affect union elections, in which only members vote.

Beyond such election activism, even the very livelihood of board members can come under assault. In Muskegon County, flyers appeared calling for boycotts of the businesses where board members work after the Reeths-Puffer board voted in April 2006 to privatize custodial positions.[iv] Such tactics — whether legal or not — understandably intimidate many board members.

Donald Wheaton: “Generally speaking, school board members are afraid to ruffle any feathers and to face a recall.”

[ii] Eaton County’s Oneida Township School District No. 3 has only one teacher and is not represented by a union. Michigan’s other conventional public schools — as opposed to public school academies, commonly known as “charter schools” — are under union contracts.

[iii] All school districts, cities and counties mentioned in the text lie in Michigan unless otherwise indicated.

[iv] The flier was distributed in April 2006 in furtherance of the union position in the Reeths-Puffer district. See the appendix.