Lashing out at Michigan unions

March 28, 2013

Public universities and schools are standing by their decision to agree to long-term contracts, explains Marie Buck.

THE MICHIGAN legislature has threatened massive cuts in funding to several public universities and K-12 schools in retaliation for what the legislature asserts is an effort to circumvent the state's new right-to-work legislation.

"Right-to-work" legislation makes it possible for anti-union workers to enjoy the benefits of working in a union-organized workplace without having to pay their fair share of union dues. Anti-labor politicians and corporations are then able to weaken and undermine union representation, both in the workplace and in contract negotiations.

Back in December, Republicans in the state legislature took advantage of a lame-duck session to pass right-to-work laws in this historically pro-union state. They pushed the legislation through with little notice, and the bills included an appropriation measure in order to prevent Michigan voters from repealing them in a future referendum.

While union leaders focused their efforts on opposing the legislation by getting out the vote in 2014, the legislature nonetheless had to illegally lock the doors to the Capitol as they passed the laws, and riot police guarded the governor's office to ward off protesters. The new laws do not actually take effect until March 28, at which point they will be implemented gradually as individual union contracts signed prior to March 28 run out.

Workers in Michigan flocked to the capitol to protest the sneak-attack passage of Right to Work for Less legislation
Workers in Michigan flocked to the capitol to protest the sneak-attack passage of Right to Work for Less legislation

Now, a number of Michigan's anti-union legislators are outraged that several unions in the midst of contract negotiations when these anti-worker laws were passed, such as Wayne State University's faculty union, have signed long-term contracts just before the implementation date.

For example, the Wayne State faculty union, AAUP-AFT Local 6075, eventually voted for a contract that was mostly concessionary, but the contract's term is for eight years. Though this is unusually long, the union saw it as a way to fend off the "right-to-work-for-less" legislation, and university administrators saw it as a way to extract additional concessions from the union.

Meanwhile, the Lecturers Employee Organization at the University of Michigan voted for a five-year contract. And elementary and high-school teachers in Taylor and Warren school districts voted for contracts as well, with teachers in Taylor taking a 10 percent pay cut, but getting a union security clause that would keep the union collecting dues from all members until 2023.

Now a subcommittee within the state legislature is putting forward a law that would impose a 15 percent cut in state funding for Wayne State and the University of Michigan because they've agreed to contracts after passage of the right-to-work bill that do not generate a 10 percent savings.

REPUBLICANS INSIST that these unions are "trying to circumvent state law"--even though the law has not yet gone into effect. Bryan McCann, an assistant professor at Wayne State, called the Republicans' hypocrisy "mind-boggling":

After cynically using legal technicalities to push right-to-work through a lame-duck session, and tacking on an appropriation to the bill in order to make it immune to voter referendum, they have the audacity to attempt to punish two of the state's largest universities for signing a perfectly legal contract...These are not people we can reason with.

This turn of events has both union leaders and the university administration defending the contract, with Wayne State president Allan Gilmour even specifying that he employed the right-to-work legislation as a lever in the negotiations--which suggests that the contract is so bad that the university feels it won out even with the eight-year agreement.

For their part, union leaders defended the contract by saying that it will help the new president that Wayne State is currently recruiting to ease into his job without worries of labor unrest. In short, these laws forced unions to attempt to lock in undesirable contracts for long periods of time--meaning that, once the contracts expire, most employees will likely not see the value in paying union dues, and union activists of all sorts will have a hard time galvanizing rank-and-file workers to pay dues or participate in the union.

If the Republican legislation goes through, Wayne State, a largely working-class school with more students of color than any other state university, would lose $27. 5 million, and the University of Michigan would lose $47.3 million. A large chunk of the leftover money would then go to the AgBioResearch program at Michigan State University.

Thus the law would take money from working-class Wayne State students and give it to a program that regularly collaborates with for-profit companies at a university whose professors are not organized into a union at all. Similarly, in Taylor, the Mackinaw Center--a right-wing think tank that plays a major role in Michigan politics--is using three teachers to sue both the school district and the union over the union-security clause.

WHILE WAYNE State's AAUP-AFT local took major concessions in order to meet the March 28 deadline, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor walked out of contract negotiations last week when the administration would not meet basic bottom lines that the membership had discussed. The administration sought to do away with some current job protections, change the way that pay rates are calculated, and impose penalties for striking during a contract.

The union decided that these would be unacceptable concessions and that it would have to negotiate next year when its contract expires--despite the fact that right-to-work will then be implemented. The next day, however, the university contacted the union with a new contract proposal, and members now have a tentative agreement on a contract that maintains current rules around these issues.

As long as the membership ratifies it, the university will be locked in to a legitimately good contract. GEO is known as a militant union, and in many past contract negotiations, it has held instructor walkouts and pickets. Unlike many other unions in the state, GEO is oriented around rank-and-file organizing--which meant it was able to risk transitioning to right-to-work more quickly, since so many of its members are actively involved that this new labor regime is unlikely to hamstring the union.

Undergraduate students at the University of Michigan will benefit from the contract as well. Graduate employees across the country typically work in stressful conditions for very little pay. GEO's victory will not only ensure that graduate student instructors receive adequate pay and benefits, but will also strengthen their ability to ensure that class sizes stay low and that students get the individualized attention they need. This model--of unions making common cause with students in the fight for quality public education--should be pursued everywhere.

DETROIT PUBLIC Schools (DPS) are severely underfunded and have been for a long time, meaning that DPS students often need a lot of remedial help. But the resources available to those students are already extremely limited. As a result, lower graduation rates at Wayne State reflect the segregation of the public school system.

Currently, only one in 10 Black students at Wayne State earns a degree within six years, meaning that large numbers of Black students in particular leave the university--with massive student loans and nothing to show for them. Small, in-person classes and additional time for individualized, in-person instruction is the key factor in helping students who come in unprepared for college.

Wayne State would ideally provide a lot of help for students who need it, both through better contracts for instructors and through more money for remedial services. But bad contracts and the state's over-the-top budget cuts both mean that Detroiters who want a college education will face more difficulties in school.

On top of all that, Detroiters are about to face reduced public transit and lighting, now that an emergency manager has been appointed. Fewer bus routes and station, poorly lit streets, diminished university resources coupled with higher tuition will mean that Detroiters who want a college education will be left with little access to a state university located in their own city.

Republicans have been unabashed in their union busting and trampling of democracy. They have pushed through a second undemocratic emergency manager law after voters repealed the first one, and they pushed through right-to-work legislation through in legally dubious circumstances.

While it makes sense for unions to try to stave off right-to-work conditions for as long as possible, the legislature's potential budget cuts to universities show that no amount of strategizing on the part of union leaders can replace rank-and-file organization.

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