The Impact of Public-Sector Bargaining in Education

Given the above dynamics, unionization began to impact the public sector almost as soon as the Michigan Legislature sanctioned the process. In 1965, when PERA was substantially revised, unions began organizing teachers in earnest. By 1966, strikes, which were not significantly discouraged by the law, were already taking place. The following year, 36 school districts did not open on time.[24] Indeed, some school boards saw the complete resignation of their teaching staffs.[25] Teachers’ salaries rose rapidly, straining district resources.[26] In 1973, teachers strikes kept as many as 650,000 Michigan children out of school.[27]

In an attempt to balance the playing field, the Michigan Legislature in 1995 passed legislation to re-establish and enhance penalties for government employee work stoppages.[28] To help school boards and administrators regain management authority, the new law also specifically removed certain subjects from contract negotiation. The measure was quickly challenged in court as a violation of free speech and free association rights, but the Michigan Supreme Court upheld the changes.[29] Nevertheless, strikes, the threat of strikes and pseudo-strikes occasionally occur despite the potential for stiff penalties provided for in the statute.[30] Indeed, Detroit teachers went on strike in 1999 and 2006.[31]

Even without the ability to strike legally, the education unions continue to wield considerable power at the bargaining table. Teachers enjoy a special relationship with a community’s children, and can evoke tremendous sympathy. The resulting political pressure on school board members is real. In fact, this dynamic has led the Michigan Association of School Boards to warn its members that consideration "should be given to potential political implications for those board members appointed [to the negotiating team] in the event bargaining breaks down and labor unrest occurs. Many of the traditional forms of pressure tactics will place special emphasis on those individuals directly involved at the table."[32]

Collective bargaining has its difficulties, and public-sector unions do hold significant electoral power. But we must also keep in mind, as two experts in collective bargaining have observed, that it is "undoubtedly the case that superintendents and school boards have sometimes found it convenient to use unions as a scapegoat so as to avoid political conflict or legal squabbles."[33]

Brian Higgins: “Try to remember and envision that [union representatives] are people who care about kids and families and are trying to do the right things, too. They are not the enemy, and I think it helps you to try to work toward reaching solutions that you both can live with. Are you ever going to get your ideal? Rarely ever, but you’ll be able to reach positions that you both can live with and move on from. I don’t think you can emphasize enough the importance of the relationship piece in bargaining.”

In the final analysis, Michigan law provides "A public school employer has the responsibility, authority and right to manage and direct on behalf of the public the operations and activities of the public schools under its control."[34] It is the responsibility of every school board member to live up to this public trust.