In the hectic days of last December, as the Michigan Legislature prepared to pass a Right-to-Work bill limiting the scope of union authority in organized work places, MEA President Steve Cook issued a warning.
“Whoever votes for this,” Cook told the Associated Press, “is not going to have any peace for the next two years.”
The union may not have much peace, either. In theory, RTW will encourage at least some MEA members to cancel their dues and walk away. And early evidence from neighboring Wisconsin suggests the MEA will have its hands full in maintaining its membership rolls.
Under RTW, workers – such as teachers and support personnel -- cannot be required to pay union dues or agency fees as a condition of employment.
David Hecker, head of AFT Michigan, and Gretchen Dziadosz, executive director of the MEA, acknowledged to Bridge recently that their unions will lose members because of RTW, which took formal effect in March.
But the two teacher-union leaders are publicly trying to downplay the impact.
“Obviously, we’re not too crazy about it,” Dziadosz said. “We will lose members — no doubt about it. Every union will. But we’re anticipating minimal losses. We have a loyal membership.”
A shrinking one, too. Between 2005 and 2012, the MEA’s ranks fell 7.5 percent, from 164,000 to roughly 152,000.
Halting that trend will, in large measure, determine the MEA’s success or failure as a business in the next decade.
The union says it has done an internal analysis of its potential membership loss under RTW, but declined to release any details.
“Just as the (MEA critic) Mackinac Center doesn’t like to give away its playbook, we don’t like to give away ours,” MEA spokesman Doug Pratt explained.
In other states, worries for MEA
The experiences of several other states that have given public sector workers the right to avoid union payments suggests Michigan’s teacher unions could lose thousands of members because of RTW.
In 2011,Wisconsin eliminated most collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers and made it illegal for unions to require members to pay dues in a move that one labor observer here labeled “Right to Work on steroids.”
Subsequently, public-sector union membership in Wisconsin fell 21 percent, from 175,366 in 2010 to 139,050 last year, according to data compiled by professors David Hirsch of Georgia State University and David Macpherson of Trinity University.
How much of that loss is in the teaching ranks is unclear, though.
The MEA’s Badger State counterpart, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, is not required to file annual reports to the federal government like the MEA does because WEAC doesn’t represent any private-sector employers, a Labor Department spokesman explained to Bridge. And the WEAC did not return messages seeking comment on how it is coping under the 2011 law.
But the union, which has about 70,000 members, did lay off 40 percent of its staff in the months after the state made public union membership optional, according to media reports in Wisconsin.
WEAC and AFT Wisconsin are exploring a merger that could “strengthen and unify the voices of public education advocates,” according to a WEAC news release.
Two other states that adopted RTW in recent times – Indiana and Oklahoma – offer little solace to the Michigan labor groups.
Indiana passed RTW last year and Oklahoma adopted it in 2001, yet the measures covered only private sector workers in those states.
Right to Work for public sector workers in those states has been in effect for years.
In Oklahoma, only about half the state’s 40,000 teachers belong to a union, said Oklahoma Education Association spokesman Doug Folks.
And only about a third of Oklahoma school districts collectively bargain with a union, he added.
Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said state budget cuts to education have resulted in teacher layoffs there.
“We’ve lost a lot of teachers because of budget cuts,” he said. “The state has cut $300 million a year from local schools in each of the past three years.”
The Paper Guerrilla War: ‘Hey, want to not join a union?’
Meanwhile, public-sector unions in Michigan are under fire from free-market and anti-union groups that are actively working to convince workers to leave unions or stop paying fees. In effect, there's a paper guerilla war between researchers at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the MEA.
The Mackinac Center, an influential voice in conservative policy circles, recently created a website, that, among other things, features an “opt-out” letter individual workers can present to their unions.
And the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a group linked to the conservative Koch brothers, has been holding town hall meetings around the state to inform union members of their options under Right to Work.
Jack McHugh, a senior legislative analyst at the Mackinac Center, wrote in a 2011 column in the center’s Capitol Confidential outlet that collective bargaining by public sector unions is “illegitimate” and should outlawed.
That same year, McHugh sent an email to then-House Education Committee Chairman Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, saying the Mackinac Center’s goal was to “outlaw government collective bargaining in Michigan, which in practical terms means no more MEA.”
The email was obtained by the liberal policy group Progress Michigan and provided to the Grand Rapids Press.
In January, MEA countered with a dossier on the Mackinac Center that went to considerable lengths to track every dollar the Midland think tank has received in recent years. This MEA opposition research report noted the Mackinac Center refuses to disclose all of its funders and works to spread its "free market" message via publications that "serve both the business interests of its corporate sponsors as well as the philosophical goals of its conservative foundation backers." The report also questioned the Mackinac Center's tax status as a nonprofit that has not "attempted to influence national, state, or local legislation, including any attempt to influence public opinion on a legislative matter or referendum."
Grading RTW in the classroom
For parents and residents more interested in academic results than the details of labor policy, the value of Right to Work is uncertain.
States with weak labor union states might have more control over educational costs, but don’t rank especially well in student achievement in public schools.
Seven of the top 10 in student achievement were non-RTW states, according to a 2012 ranking by Education Week. Conversely, seven of the 10 worst-performing states in student achievement were RTW states.
In research parlance, however, this is not statistically relevant evidence that RTW harms or helps academic progress.
For example, the Education Week rankings have Wisconsin at 18th, Michigan at 19th and Indiana at 22nd, even though the three states have had significantly different labor policies.
A 2007 research study focused on Texas schools found that, in general, salary increases for teachers -- a common goal of any teachers union -- would be "expensive and ineffective" for the goal of improving academics.
Yet, considerable research shows that high-quality teachers are a vital component for student achievement.
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.