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MEA faces breakaways, poaching of locals

Just months after Right to Work was enacted in Michigan, Michigan Education Association local units are looking to depart the mothership.

MEA leaders say local units have left – and returned -- before.

But critics of the statewide union believe these recent moves are the harbinger of something different.

“It’s going to break wide open,” said Jim Perialas, president of the independent Roscommon Teachers Association, which left the MEA last fall. “All kinds of local unions are in various stages of doing what we did.”

In March, teachers in the Meridian Public Schools, a small district northwest of Midland, lent credence to Perialas’ view, filing a petition with the state seeking an election to decertify the MEA and be represented by the Meridian United Teachers Association.

And in an eyebrow-raising move, on the same March day, the Police Officers Association of Michigan filed a petition with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission seeking to represent the 28 MEA-represented teachers at Forest Park Schools in Crystal Falls in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“The Forest Park teachers thought they could do better,” said Ed Jacques, director of member services at the 13,000-member POAM.

MORE COVERAGE: Labor belabored: MEA losing members, losing fights. Will it lose its grip?

But Meridian teachers apparently have reconsidered, advising the state in recent days that they intend to drop their petition to exit the MEA.

And Allison Soderberg, president of the Forest Park Education Association, said the union agreed to the POAM petition to “keep our options open,” adding that no final decision has been made on whether the election will even occur.

“We just learned about another option that was available to us,” she explained. “We never thought about (leaving the MEA) until we were contacted by the POAM. It never crossed our minds.”

Soderberg indicated many Forest Park teachers were unhappy with the MEA’s representation -- though she would not detail why.

Union solidarity shows a crack

Jacques said POAM usually shies away from poaching members from other unions. But some of its members in the Upper Peninsula have spouses in the school district who expressed interested in having the POAM represent them, he said. So, in addition to  fighting incessantly with Republicans at the State Capitol over school funding and policies, the MEA now confronts isolated poaching from a fellow member of the labor movement.

“Our members have the right to shop around,” said MEA spokesman Doug Pratt.

But Pratt said he questions “how much of a labor organization” POAM is because it does not strongly align itself on issues with the MEA and other large unions.

Even Republicans say they are able to find more common ground with police and fire unions than with teachers unions. Public safety unions also were exempted from provisions of Right to Work legislation passed last year.

The Forest Park teachers would become the first teachers to belong to the POAM if the union wins a representation election.

“We’ve been doing collective bargaining since the 1960s, and small units have come and gone,” said MEA Executive Director Gretchen Dziadosz. “But it’s not common. Small units might leave, but they tend to come back.”

Bridge contacted local teacher union officials in Grand Rapids, Utica and Livonia —among the largest school districts in the state — for their views on how well the MEA was serving them. None returned calls and emails.

Critics say the union has become too bureaucratic, political and expensive. They think they can do a better job of representing themselves in contract negotiations and disputes with school districts.

“They were unresponsive. We just were not getting the bang for the buck,” said Perialas, a veteran Roscommon High School teacher who led the fight to leave the MEA.

MORE COVERAGE: Long-simmering MEA-GOP war intensifies going into 2014

Since he started working on Roscommon’s departure from the MEA, Perialas has heard from dozens of teachers across the state wanting to do the same thing. Perialas even has formed a consulting firm to help them.

“We get several requests a week from teachers saying, ‘We heard what happened in Roscommon. Can you help us, too?’” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a long-time critic of the MEA.

The Mackinac Center’s legal foundation aided Roscommon teachers in severing ties with the MEA, Perialas explained. And the center has created a website providing resources for those who want to leave unions under the Right to Work.

This has put the Roscommon social studies teacher in an awkward position.

Perialas said RTW supporters have asked him to be the poster boy for their cause – requests he has politely declined.

“I’m not a proponent of Right to Work,” Perialas explained. “I believe in unionism. I just don’t believe in big, bureaucratic unions.”

Still, he and others say the RTW law, which took effect March 28, could prompt many local teachers units to try to leave the MEA and the smaller AFT Michigan union.

“A lot of the concern is the same as at Roscommon. Members feel the MEA is spending too much money on special interests and not representing their interests,” Vernuccio said.

The MEA spent $4,843,282 on lobbying and political activity last year, 4 percent of its $122,051,581 in revenues.

MEA officials say that money is spent not only for the financial benefit of its members, but also for the future of public education.

“Being a union is about collective power — getting people to work together for a common end,” Pratt said. “That requires political action.”

Pratt acknowledged that the MEA doesn’t enjoy total support from its members, but noted that union officials believe most are supportive of its services and its public education advocacy.

“When you represent 150,000 people there are going to be a slice of those who don’t agree with you,” Pratt said.

In Roscommon, worries over health insurance, costs

Perialas said one reason he believed the Roscommon teachers weren’t a priority for the MEA was the fact they didn’t buy health insurance coverage from the Michigan Education Special Services Association, affiliated with the MEA.

“They ignored us because we weren’t a MESSA school,” he said.

While technically separate from the MEA, MESSA was founded by the union in 1960 and several of the MEA’s leaders serve on its board of trustees. MESSA covers 65,000 public school employees in Michigan and their families. It had revenues of nearly $1.25 billion in its 2011 fiscal year, according to the nonprofit company’s latest federal tax return. MESSA pays MEA a marketing fee ($3 million in 2012) to promote its wares to members.

MEA officials deny they provided less service to Roscommon teachers because they choose an alternative health insurance provider.

“There are a large number of locals without MESSA insurance,” noted MEA’s Dziadosz.

MORE COVERAGE: As Right to Work takes root, MEA faces rough lessons from Wisconsin

Two previous efforts by Roscommon teachers during the past 20 years to break away from the MEA had failed. But recent dues increases and unhappiness over the services provided by the MEA’s Uniserv representatives eroded support for the union, Perialas said.

The MEA’s Uniserv staffers are the local units’ point of contact for a variety of issues, including contract negotiations, grievances and other disputes with school administrators.

But Roscommon’s local bargaining team negotiated contracts for years with little help from the MEA, Perialas said.

The district’s 70 teachers would have paid $962.40 each in local, state and national dues this year had they stayed with the MEA, he said. They’re now paying $600 a year to the Roscommon Teachers Association. And dues could eventually fall to $400 a year after the association builds up a “war chest” to support representing its members in contract negotiations and legal issues, Perialas said.

Roscommon teachers, however, took a 4 percent pay cut this year in the RTA’s first contract with the school district. Perialas said it’s the first pay cut teachers have taken in the 21 years he’s taught in the district.

Roscommon teachers’ wages were 10 percent higher than in surrounding school districts, he said. Perialas argues that taking a pay cut was a responsible move in light of the school district’s tight finances.

The MEA doesn’t see it that way.

“Roscommon teachers lost several thousands of dollars in salaries,” Pratt said. “It wasn’t a good deal.”

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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