Court backs union, privatization ‘chill’ debated

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Opinions vary on whether a court ruling allowing Grand Rapids school bus drivers to continue to be represented by their public sector union — even after their jobs were outsourced — will "chill" a statewide trend toward privatization, The Grand Rapids Press reported.

A U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, D.C., has ruled that Dean Transportation, which hired the bus drivers in 2005, must bargain with the Grand Rapids Education Support Personnel Association over those drivers' pay and benefits, The Press reported. The question is whether the prospect of negotiating with Michigan Education Association affiliates like GRESPA will discourage other private companies from entering contracts to provide services to school districts, according to The Press.

"This is a statement to all the anti-union forces out there that the laws are going to be enforced and the people have a right to determine who will represent them," Buz Graeber, the bus driver's MEA representative, told The Press.

However, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy issued a press release saying the case does not automatically mean that all private companies would have to recognize existing school unions. The Mackinac Center publishes Michigan Education Digest.

Patrick J. Wright, Mackinac Center senior legal analyst, said the court did not address a key issue regarding workers' rights. He said the question remains whether it is fair to presume that public employees who move into private sector jobs — and gain the right to strike — would still want to be represented by public sector unions with little experience in that area.

"Michigan school boards and private contractors do not need to fear that privatization efforts will be undermined by a presumption that school unions will automatically continue to be involved in the provision of any privatized services," Wright said in the press release. "This decision does not prevent privatization as either a legal or practical matter."

Dean Transportation could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, according to The Press. Owner Kellie Dean said the company is reviewing its options.

The Grand Rapids Press, "Key court ruling on unions backs Grand Rapids school bus drivers," Jan. 9, 2009

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, "School privatization should not be Hampered by Today's Federal Court Ruling on Grand Rapids Case," Jan. 9, 2009

Michigan Education Report, "Dean Transportation, MEA at odds over unions," Feb. 23, 2007