A ‘Right’ Or A ‘Wrong?’

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Union workers decry state’s new right-to-work law.

Union supporters marched to the Capitol in Lansing Dec. 11 to protest right-to-work legislation that Gov. Snyder signed into law that day at 5 p.m.(Lansing State Journal | Rod Sanford)

When Republican lawmakers turned the state of Michigan into a right-to-work state on Dec. 11 during a lame duck session in the legislature, Gov. Rick Snyder said the bill “will contribute to our state’s economic comeback while preserving the roles of unions and collective bargaining.”

On the FOX News Channel later that day, Snyder said the law was good for Michigan’s workers, and will “bring more and better jobs to Michigan.”

“Indiana’s had a strong experience; they did similar legislation back in February,” he said. “They’ve seen thousands of jobs come to Indiana, and those jobs could also come to Michigan.”

After the vote, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, “For millions of Michigan voters, this is no ordinary debate. It’s an assault on their right to have their elected bargaining agent negotiate their pay, benefits and working conditions, and to have all who benefit from such negotiations share in some way in the cost of obtaining them.”

Many other critics say the law is designed to weaken unions — as well as the Democratic Party, which has relied on money and support from them — by allowing union members to stop paying dues, yet reap the benefits from those who continue to pay.

The new law makes Michigan — long a stronghold of union influence in the industrial Midwest because of the highly unionized auto industry — the 24th state in the U.S. to keep unions from requiring employees to join and contribute dues. There is a 90-day period before the law goes into effect, which puts it into April. Union contracts remain unchanged until they expire.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2011, 671,000 Michiganders belong to a union, accounting for 17.5 percent of wage and salary workers in the state. In addition to those union members, another 32,000 workers were represented by a union while not being union members themselves.

Teachers Weigh In
Locally, a good portion of Jewish union members belong to teachers unions. Three Jewish public school teachers interviewed for this story agree the law would negatively affect public school students.

Janet Siegel of Oak Park has been a teacher for 11 years at Beverly Elementary School in Birmingham, 10 years in special education; she now teaches kindergarten there.

“People forget that in the union we don’t just negotiate for our salaries and tenure, we negotiate for manageable class size and research-based curriculum for the children,” said Siegel. “I think schools will be run as a business, and you can’t really run a school like that.”

Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) members marched to the Capitol in Lansing on Dec. 11 to protest then-pending right-to-work legislation. (Lansing State Journal | Rod Sanford)

She fears that with the right-to-work law, salaries will be lowered, insurance rates will be higher and teachers will have to stay on the job longer because of the lower salaries.

“It’s going to water down the profession; you’re not going to have the same kinds of people going into it for the same reasons,” she said. “We’re going to see fewer male teachers in elementary schools because it won’t be considered a profession where you can make money to raise a family.”

She also said the law will make things difficult for the students.

“I can see the school combining kindergarten classes and having 30 kids in a class so they don’t have to hire another teacher,” she said. “Or in the special-ed room, it’s law now that you need a certain amount of teachers to students. They could change all that; it won’t be any good for kids.”

Siegel, a member of the Michigan Education Association, said she will not only continue paying dues, but also plans to convince other teachers in the school to continue paying as well.

“For a single mom trying to put two kids through college, it’s very tempting to not pay union dues,” she said. “But I see how having a strong union will help not only my working conditions and my salary, [but also] the profession itself. I think our profession has taken a beating in so many ways. It doesn’t seem like teachers have the respect from legislators, and there’s a lot of blame put on teachers.”

Meredith Summer of Oak Park was a teacher for 13 years, primarily in the Southfield school system. She was laid off in June as a result of the education reform laws passed earlier in the year that did away with any bargaining rights regarding seniority, lay-offs or recall.

She has been unable to find a job since.

“Now school districts don’t want to hire you if you have a lot of experience because they want to save money,” said Summer. “They don’t want to pay teachers with experience, so they just hire new teachers.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to teach again unless I can get my job back in Southfield, but there were 40 other teachers laid off,” she said.

“We’re in a recession and money is tight,” Summer said. “If you can get away with not having to pay your union dues and still get the benefits, a lot of people are going to choose not to pay. The people not paying will be freeloading off of those who do. It will cause a lot of division; it’s going to cause a lot of strife in the school district, and the union won’t have as much money to provide resources.”

Summer said she paid about $900 a year in dues at the Southfield branch of the Michigan Education Association (SEA) — dues that were deducted from her paycheck.

“Writing a check every month will hurt more than having it deducted,” she said. “A lot of people will also still be saying that if the union can’t protect me from being laid off or recalled, then why am I paying all these dues?”

Doris Schey of Huntington Woods taught Southfield elementary school students for 36 years; she retired in 2005. She also was an active SEA building representative and walked picket lines a number of times.

“I became active when our union began fighting for teacher rights — the right for teachers to have smaller class sizes, protection on the job, improved pay and benefits, and input into curriculum development,” she said.

“When the law was passed prohibiting teachers from striking, I felt our power was diminished. My last few years were spent working without a contract. That affected the morale of the teaching staff as we saw more staff member jobs being outsourced.”

Teachers being required to pay union dues has been under discussion since she began her career, but Schey is convinced it is the right thing to do.

“When a few fight for the majority, everyone benefits,” she said. “Therefore, even those who do nothing, do not attend meetings or participate in actions taken by the union still get all the hard-earned benefits — and should pay the dues.”

As the union became weaker, fewer staff members came to meetings.

“Times have changed,” Schey said. “I feel as passionate as ever those unions are important, and members of the working class should support organizations that are working on their behalf.”

 By Harry Kirsbaum, Contributing Writer

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