Michigan’s Teacher Bargaining Law: A Model for Illinois

Published August 12, 1994

All across America, parents and local school boards are wrestling with a growing problem–the political and economic clout of teacher unions. One state–Michigan- -has finally done something about it.

Michigan, at first glance, may seem like a most unlikely state to exert strong discipline on its teacher unions. The 127,000-member Michigan Education Association (MEA), by far the state’s largest union of public school personnel, is also Lansing’s bigges t lobby–contributing to political campaigns in the last legislative elections over three times more than any other special interest. From its ranks have come much of the brains, resources, and leadership of the National Education Association.

Moreover, Michigan traditionally has been a strong union state. The MEA usually could count on the United Autoworkers and other powerful unions to forge alliances and thwart any challenge to privileges won in previous legislative battles. The MEA and its smaller rival, the Michigan Federation of Teachers, staged illegal strikes with impunity and bullied school districts into granting some of the highest teacher salaries and per-pupil spending in the country.

For years, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations mustered the political courage to restore a proper balance between those who manage the schools and those who work in them. That is, until April of this year, when the Michigan Legislature passe d and Governor John M. Engler signed into law sweeping changes in collective bargaining rules for teachers. The new rules take effect on April 1, 1995 and include the following:

  • Enforcement for the first time of a longstanding ban on teacher strikes. A fine of $5,000 per day will be levied on striking unions, and teachers will be docked one day’s pay for every day they walk the picket line. If school boards lock out the teach ers, the district will be fined $5,000 a day and board members will be docked $250 a day. Neither unions nor school boards will be permitted to compensate themselves for strike fines in any bargaining agreement.

  • If contract talks reach an impasse after 30 days, a school board can impose its last, best offer as final settlement and hire permanent replacements for teachers who choose not to accept the offer. Furthermore, an agreement negotiated by a union local and supported by the local members cannot be vetoed by officials higher up in the union.

  • A range of issues no longer will be subject to mandatory collective bargaining: the length of the school day and the start of the school year, schools of choice, charter schools, the installation of new technology and use of volunteers in the classroo m, and privatization of noninstructional services such as food, custodial work, and busing. The unions no longer will be able to prevent action on these matters as part of any settlement with management.

For good measure, the Legislature added an important campaign finance reform that has implications for teachers. Teacher unions no longer will be able to automatically deduct funds for politics from their membership’s paychecks without each individual mem ber’s express, written approval. This reform will liberate many teachers from supporting candidates and causes their union leadership likes but they don’t.

The combined effect of these changes will be to empower management to manage, restoring the ability of parents and the school boards they elect to determine what transpires in the schools and to contain soaring costs.

Does Illinois need a set of similar rules? Evidence strongly suggests that the Land of Lincoln, too, has suffered from the inordinate clout of its teacher unions.

Illinois is home to just 4.6 percent of the nation’s population. Yet in the 1992-1993 school year, according to figures compiled by the Public Service Research Foundation, 20 percent of all teacher strikes in the country occurred in Illinois. Innovative s trategies for saving money, improving quality, and broadening parental choice are routinely blocked by the IEA and the IFT, the state’s dominant teacher unions.

Putting Michigan-style restrictions on the power of Illinois teachers to strike will raise this inevitable objection: Strikes in the private sector are not banned, so why fine teachers in the public sector when they do the same thing? The crucial d ifference, of course, is that customers are not forced to pay for the product when a private factory is shut down by a strike. When public employees close down a school, however, taxpayers keep paying for the education their children aren’t getting.

When April 1995 rolls around, Michigan parents and school boards will take back their schools. Management will manage, and teachers will teach. Unions no longer will intimidate their own membership into compliance with the establishment’s political agenda . The door will be wide open for implementation of new strategies that make use of motivated volunteers, new technology, and private sector cost control.

Now that’s a model Illinois would do well to emulate.

Written for The Heartland Institute by Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational organization in Midland, Michigan.