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Michigan Senate votes to scrap school union ‘release time’

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Marty Knollenberg.

Lansing — Michigan’s Republican-led Senate on Tuesday narrowly voted to ban paid “release time” contract provisions that allow public school employees to conduct union business during their work day.

GOP senators rejected amendments from Democrats, who decried the proposal as an attack on organized labor.

On the first day of the so-called lame-duck session, the upper chamber also voted to ban pension service credit accrual for qualifying school employees who leave their normally assigned duties to represent a union.

“I think the taxpayers are expecting that teachers are teaching in the classroom, not to be doing union business,” said sponsoring Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy. “They can still do union business, I’m not taking away from that, but the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for this work. It’s that simple.”

State Sen. Vincent Gregory, a former police detective and union leader, spoke out against the legislation, arguing it could force teachers to use “hard-earned vacation time” to help settle workplace disputes or settle grievances that typically involve union representatives.

“Bills like this only serve one purpose: It’s another step in the systematic destruction of unions and worker rights,” said Gregory, D-Lathrup Village.

The 20-18 Senate vote was the latest step in a years-long battle over union release time for public employees. The version approved Tuesday would exempt police officers and firefighters, much like the state’s right-to-work law that was passed in 2012 with a similar carve-out.

Police officers and firefighters are “on-call emergency responders, and they have to react in a moment’s notice,” Knollenberg said, suggesting a teacher’s work scope is “quite a bit different.”

“Collective bargaining types of issues can be done anytime," he said. “They can be done after classroom hours are over.”

All Democrats voted against the measure, along with Republican Sens. Ken Horn of Frankenmuth, Rick Jones of Grand Ledge, Margaret O'Brien of Portage, Mike Nofs of Battle Creek, Wayne Schmidt of Traverse City and Dale Zorn of Ida.

As of 2015, 67 of the state’s 587 school districts had contracts that included paid release time provisions, according to the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency. Eliminating the provisions in future contracts could reduce an estimated $2.7 million in costs, the agency said, but savings could be mitigated if negotiations produce alternative provisions that are more expensive.

More than 175 school districts currently pay employees to perform union duties for some portion of their time, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market research group often cited by Republican legislators.

State Sen. David Knezek, D-Dearborn Heights, proposed a rejected amendment that would only allow school employees to use release time for union business that involves collective bargaining, grievances or labor-management meetings to address workplace issues.

Knezek said he had no problem codifying a ban on using public dollars for political purposes, which is already illegal. But allowing union representatives to help settle workplace grievances during business hours can help save money, he argued.

Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor, proposed an amendment to link the bill to several “egregious anti-worker laws” adopted by the Republican majority over the past eight years, including the 2012 right-to-work law banning contracts that require union dues or fees as a condition of employment.

The legislation now heads to the state House for consideration. Knollenberg, who previously sponsored similar legislation in both chambers, said he is “optimistic” the House will take up the measure before the year's end.

“But nothing is ever guaranteed, and we just have to work through the process,” said Knollenberg, who lost his re-election campaign and will leave office at the end of December.

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