Michigan's Two Teachers Unions Down Tens of Thousands of Members

MEA and AFT have lost almost 28,000 members in the past three years

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Michigan’s two largest public school unions have seen their numbers of dues-paying members decline sharply since 2012, according to documents filed with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Michigan Education Association lost 20 percent of its active members, going from 117,626 members in 2012 to 94,559 in 2015. The American Federation of Teachers-Michigan lost 21 percent, dropping from 23,388 members in 2012 to 18,585 in 2015.

Michigan’s new right-to-work law is only one of the likely explanations for the drop in union membership. Schools are also privatizing more noninstructional services to devote resources to their core mission. That means fewer unionized government jobs and more nonunionized private industry jobs.

The number of students in Michigan’s public schools has experienced a multiyear decline, which translates to fewer teachers.

There also has been steady growth in the number of Michigan public charter schools. Hardly any charters are unionized.

And under the right-to-work law enacted three years ago, over time more teachers have gained the ability to stop supporting the union financially without losing their jobs. However, this applies only to teachers under union collective bargaining agreements signed after the law went into effect on March 28, 2013.

So not all Michigan teachers can stop paying dues if they want. In many cases, this is because their unions signed so-called union security agreement agreements with local school boards. Right-to-work does not apply in those districts until those deals expire. For example, Dearborn Schools and its union signed a 5-year union security agreement that runs from 2013 to 2018. Contracts such as the one in Dearborn require teachers to pay dues to the union as a condition of employment.

Larry Sand, the president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network and a commentator on national teacher union issues, said Michigan’s union drop-off would increase if this state had the same public employment reform laws as those enacted in Wisconsin in 2011.

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It was reported that the school union there, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), saw its membership drop from 98,000 in 2011 to 40,000 in 2015.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed Act 10 that limited government collective bargaining to pay only, required government unions be recertified each year by 50 percent of the employees in a local unit, and placed all school and municipal employees under right-to-work provisions that let them stop paying dues without losing their jobs.

"Since passage of Wisconsin's Act 10 in 2011, WEAC, the state's NEA affiliate, has lost over half its members," wrote Sand. "Should Michigan follow Wisconsin's pattern, the unions' bleeding has just begun. Many teachers, especially the good and great ones, realize that they don't need a union to have a successful and lengthy career. I was a teacher in a non-RTW state. As such, I was forced to fork over some money to the union, but I especially didn't want to pay the political portion. When I found out that I could withhold that money, I did so immediately — even though I had to resign from the union by doing so. And my teaching career suffered not a whit in the process."

On March 9, 2015, Wisconsin enacted a full right-to-work law that applies not just in government but also to private sector workplaces.

AFT-Michigan and the MEA didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

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Nonpublic schools serve tens of thousands of Michigan elementary and secondary students, yet a clear understanding of the state's diverse private education landscape has been lacking.

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