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Published: Wednesday, 3/23/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

UNION LETTER

'Job actions' against cuts called for in Michigan

Teachers' union says statewide strike possible

BY MARK REITER AND TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Colleen Jan, left, head of the Bedford Education Association, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. Colleen Jan, left, head of the Bedford Education Association, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
BLADE NEWS SERVICES Enlarge
Calling it an attack on the people of Michigan, the union that represents teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and the state's other public school employees has called on its locals to agree to take job actions -- including a statewide teachers' strike -- to put pressure on lawmakers in Lansing against legislation it considers to be anti-union.

In an e-mail to her members, Iris K. Salters, president of the Michigan Education Association, said various bills would result in "emergency managers, step freezes, mandatory privatization, mandatory health insurance payments, and budget cuts," which she said "are outright attacks on our students, our members, our communities, and our future."

"To put it bluntly, we are under assault in Lansing," Ms. Salters said in her e-mail to the state's 1,100 union locals last week. [VIEW E-MAIL]

The MEA's board of directors voted last week to ask locals throughout the state to support a "Job Action Authorization" before April 14 that would authorize the unions to engage in "significant activities" -- up to and including a work stoppage -- to increase pressure on legislators.

"But more importantly, it is a way for us to ramp up our crisis activities and ensure our members understand the severity of the situation. It provides us with the backing of our members to engage in larger scale, public activities in response to these attacks on our rights and our future," Ms. Salters said in her e-mail.

The Bedford Education Association, which represents Bedford Schools' roughly 290 teachers, recently authorized the MEA's request, said Colleen Jan, president of the Bedford Schools teachers' union.

"I had the meeting and the BEA did vote by majority to authorize the MEA to explore all options," she said.

In the Bedford district, 38 secretaries, 46 bus drivers, 57 paraprofessionals, and 32 food-service workers are represented by locals of the MEA. Union officials couldn't be reached Tuesday night to find out if nonteachers at Bedford Schools voted on the strike request.

Ms. Jan said she interprets the MEA's board request for support to strike as a last option.

"The way I read the letter, Iris is asking does she have the support to consider all options, up to and including a work stoppage or strike? It is not take a vote and strike April 15," she said. "The word is already out there that Bedford teachers are going to strike on April 15. That is absurd and ridiculous. However, I am not going to say that it will not happen in the future."

Nikki Konaris, president of the teachers' union at Monroe Public Schools, said a meeting for her local to act on the measure is scheduled for next week. She represents about 360 teachers in the school district.

She said the law regarding emergency financial managers and other proposed legislation will negatively impact public education in Michigan and will devastate the middle class.

"I support standing up and doing whatever is necessary to make the legislature pay attention. Legislators are living in a vacuum. They don't seem to feel there will be an impact on them or whatever they are voting on in Lansing," she said.

Ted Magrum, superintendent of Bedford Public Schools, said strikes and work stoppages are illegal under Michigan law and the activity would result in additional costs to the district because of missed class time for students.

"I would be disappointed if our employees chose to participate in an illegal activity that would negatively affect our students," Mr. Magrum said. "If they did do that, we wouldn't be able to count the days. We would have to make the day up or have the amount deducted from our state school aid."

The 5,200-student school district is projecting a deficit of more than $6 million for the next school year under the governor's budget plan to cut funding by $470 per student.

Paul Kersey, the director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich., said the threat of a teacher strike orchestrated by the MEA is for real.

"I think that's a very real possibility that they are serious about this. I don't think the state or local school boards can take this as an idle threat," Mr. Kersey said. He said the MEA has an annual budget of $130 million and raised $65.6 million in dues and agency fees in fiscal year 2010.

Mr. Kersey said strikes in Michigan are illegal but the law governing strikes is difficult to enforce.

The law triggering the teacher outrage is not mainly focused on collective bargaining, as are laws pushed by Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin to scale back public employee union-bargaining rights. The law expands the powers of fiscal emergency managers, including giving them the power to set aside collective-bargaining agreements.

"The state hasn't appointed that many emergency financial managers. It's a last resort that the state law provides for. There have been only eight emergency financial managers appointed over the last 20 years," Mr. Kersey said. He said those numbers might rise "as the recession continues and as the bills come due for government-employee benefits."

"The one thing that this changes for unions is this: They know they live in a universe where they know their collective bargaining can be set aside if they push a local government into fiscal emergency. They have accountability for results. I think that accountability for results is something they're having a hard time adjusting to," Mr. Kersey said.

Last week, at least 3,000 union members and others rallied at the Capitol against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's proposals to tax pensions and give emergency financial managers sweeping new powers.

Despite the protests, Mr. Snyder signed six bills Tuesday night giving sweeping new powers to emergency financial managers named by the state of Michigan to run cities and schools, including the ability to terminate union contracts.

Many Democrats and labor unions criticized it as a state power grab that could set up virtual dictatorships and strip power from local elected officials.

The Republican governor said the legislation will let the state offer aid earlier when local governments and school districts are in financial distress and give financial managers better tools to make changes.

"For too long in this state, we've avoided making the tough decisions," Governor Snyder said. "But waiting limits options and makes the solutions much more painful."

Democratic legislative leaders said they plan to introduce a proposal to add a clause to the state constitution that says every person has the right to join a labor organization and bargain collectively on wages and other employment conditions.

Ms. Jan said local school district financial problems are caused by the disparity in state funding, which results in Bedford Schools getting less money for each student than some other districts, forcing it into deficit spending and potentially into the control of an emergency financial manager.

"We have not had equitable funding," Ms. Jan said. "If you don't give the local government funding and you don't give the schools equitable and reasonable funding, you are going to force them into deficit spending. The government will come in and take over."

Contact Mark Reiter at: markreiter@theblade.com, or 419-724-6199.


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