Sometime in the 1960s, in light of the national trend toward allowing collective bargaining in the public sector, the National Education Association, parent union of the Michigan Education Association, re-examined its role as primarily a professional teacher’s association focused on excellence in education. In fact, as pointed out by Harvard’s Caroline Hoxby, "[t]eachers’ unionism has a somewhat unique and confusing history because teachers’ unions were formed by converting existing teachers’ professional associations." Donald Keck summarizes:
"In the early 1960s, NEA responded to the growing unrest over salaries and other conditions of employment among public school teachers, especially in the urban centers of the east and middle west. The NEA began to re-examine its role by determining how best to meet membership needs. In 1962, a task force was appointed to study the problem.
"The members of this task force included George Schultz of the University of Chicago and later Secretary of the Treasury, John Dunlop of Harvard University and later Secretary of Labor, Charles Rhemus of the University of Michigan, and Walter Oberer of Cornell University.
"Task force deliberations resulted in the recommendation that NEA become the collective bargaining agent for those of its members who wished to bargain collectively. This was the beginning of NEA’s involvement in collective bargaining — a dramatic policy change that was encouraged by a committee of university dons."
Many state governments saw fit to follow the trend, including Michigan. As of 2005, 35 percent of state employees, as well as 45.8 percent of local government employees, are represented by public-sector unions. When PERA was revised in 1965, Michigan teachers were the first public employees to establish a bargaining group. Both the NEA, through its affiliate MEA, and the American Federation of Teachers were active in Michigan. The AFT adopted a trade-union model, which the MEA eventually adopted as well. However, the AFT’s identification as a trade union hindered its organizing efforts, and the MEA benefited from its being thought of as a professional educator organization.
Sandra Feeley Myrand: "I’ve been an MEA member. I think the MEA certainly did some very fine things initially. The power that the MEA has garnered is the responsibility of many factors, including local school boards. Boards and superintendents, when times were good, did not think clearly enough about the future [and] the potential of negative consequences of the things that boards bargained away. That’s a product of the fact that the only way that things get done in schools is through the teachers. It’s critical that teachers are comfortable and happy in their jobs. It’s critical to the delivery of education. A teacher’s psychological well-being is essential to the way they deliver instruction to students. This fact creates an underlying tension when we negotiate."
Almost without exception, the school districts in Michigan are unionized.[ix] The MEA and the AFT continue to be the predominant representatives of Michigan educators in the public schools, though a number of other unions, including some unaffiliated locals, represent other bargaining units. In addition, units occasionally switch unions, as was the case when support staff at Cedar Springs voted to end their relationship with the MEA and instead be represented by an affiliate under the International Union of Operating Engineers.
Nationally, a 2003 poll of public school teachers found: "77 percent of union members report that they are either somewhat or very satisfied with their union. When teachers are asked specifically about the job their unions do in representing their interests in collective bargaining, the percentage who say they are satisfied jumps to 84 percent."
Having organized the public schools, the education unions are continually seeking new sources of membership, including efforts to organize Michigan’s charter schools and even a parochial school. However, in August 2005 the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed a May 2004 MERC ruling allowing the organization of teachers at Birmingham’s Brother Rice High School, a Catholic school. The Court of Appeals reasoned that Brother Rice’s status as a private religious school precluded it from being mandated to bargain collectively with a union that may or may not coincide with the religious nature of the school.
[ix] Eaton County’s Oneida Township School District No. 3 has only one teacher and is not represented by a union.