August 29, 2014 at 1:19 pm

Right-to-work law has some Metro Detroit teacher pacts in limbo

Law allows union dues to end amid contract negotiations

Rob Wiersema, an economics teacher in a district near Grand Rapids, says he opted-out of the Michigan Education Association this month due to money and politics. (Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)

The school year hasn’t started yet but teachers may already look beleaguered.

The reason has nothing to do with organizing classes, assembling lesson plans and learning students’ names.

Several dozen public school districts in Metro Detroit don’t have contracts with teachers.

And the agreements that have been reached bear unsettling omens for the ongoing negotiations — pay cuts, higher health costs, bigger class sizes.

Meanwhile, the teachers’ guardians are under fire. The state’s right-to-work law, which took effect last year, could weaken unions by allowing members to stop paying dues.

“The law undermines union members. That’s why they made it,” said Scott Warrow, a social studies teacher in Birmingham.

Teacher unions are mounting a furious campaign to hold onto members while conservative groups try just as hard to pry them away.

Anyone wishing to quit the Michigan Education Association, whose 112,000 active members make it the state’s largest public-sector union, may do so in August.

The MEA, which will release the number of resignations next month, said most members seem to be staying put.

One person not staying put is Rob Wiersema, 51, an economics teacher in Hopkins, south of Grand Rapids.

He left the MEA for two reasons — money and politics. He joined a trade group, the Association of American Educators, that charged far less in fees but provided twice as much liability insurance.

“I saved hundreds and hundreds of dollars,” he said.

What Wiersema likes even more is getting away from the MEA’s advocacy for progressive causes. He described himself as conservative and the union leadership as the “left end of liberal.”

As for this business of unsettled contracts, the MEA, based on past experience, estimated that a third of the 83 public school districts in Metro Detroit are still negotiating agreements.

But the number could be higher. An online database kept by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, showed that as of last year, 66 districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties had expired or about-to-expire pacts.

The center will update the database next week.

The MEA said the issues that need to be hammered out are as varied as the districts.

“It’s usually not just a couple of sticking points. It’s how the whole package comes together,” said union spokeswoman Nancy Knight, a former bargainer.

Unions worry their ability to forge deals could be hampered by the right-to-work law.

The American Federation of Teachers-Michigan, which represents teachers in Detroit and Dearborn, believes that was why supporters pushed for the law.

“The point of right to work is to weaken unions,” said David Hecker, president of AFT-Michigan, which has 31,000 active members.

The agreements reached so far this year show teachers involved in ongoing talks have their work cut out for them.

Brighton public school teachers reached a five-year deal in June that froze their pay and eliminated seniority.

Clawson instructors inked a deal the same month that cut salaries 3 percent and required full premiums for dental and vision care and long-term disability.

Until a last-minute change of heart by their emergency manager, Detroit Public School teachers were going to have their pay chopped 10 percent, on top of an identical cut in 2011.

Hecker said the environment for negotiations has grown severe the past three or four years. “Things have changed and not for the better,” he said. “A lot of school districts are struggling.”

At the same time, pro-business groups are actively wooing educators to hand in their union cards. Americans for Prosperity, supported by the Koch brothers, took out a full-page newspaper ad encouraging teachers to leave the union. It included a form that would allow them to do so.

The Mackinac Center set up a website that walked teachers through the opting-out process. It, too, had a form.

The center also mailed postcards to instructors reminding them about the Aug. 31 deadline to drop out. “We wanted to make sure as many as possible knew what their options were,” said Ted O’Neil, Mackinac spokesman.

The unions have been busy, reminding members about the benefits of organized support in letters, through emails and on Facebook.

But the union’s director of member and political engagement downplayed the effort. “It’s the same things we’ve always done,” said Doug Pratt. “It’s nothing new or revolutionary. It’s not rocket science.”

But he conceded the stakes are high. Last August, when the opt-out period wasn’t widely known, 1,500 members left the union.

This year, with the issue so heavily publicized by the conservative groups, Pratt said the number of opt-outs is likely to rise.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com