Right-to-Work: What Now for Schools?

Michigan is now the 24th state to outlaw firing employees for not financially supporting unions, making it a right-to-work state.

While this concept is not new, bills making it possible moved quickly through the Legislature. School officials unfamiliar with the policy might be asking: “What now?”

It boils down to this: Districts may no longer sign union contracts that contain “union security” clauses — agreements to fire or extract union dues from non-union members. But nothing will change in the immediate short term. The law does not go into effect until the end of March, and even after that, the law does not apply to contracts signed before that date.

But unions aren’t likely to sit on their hands between now and then. School officials should expect them to actively try to open up negotiations and seek long-term contracts that lock in these forced dues. Union officials will likely offer unprecedented levels of concessions to sweeten the pot.

While these long-term deals might appear attractive, school officials should be cautious. One lesson of the Great Recession roller-coaster ride is that districts need more financial flexibility, not less. If districts roll the dice and sign long-term deals, there’s no going back. Unions will do everything in their power to prevent reopening the contract again, because it could mean they’ll lose dues revenue.

Sadly, this union tactic to protect a funding stream will likely harm the best interests of the members they claim to represent. For starters, delaying the implementation of the right-to-work law would deprive a considerable number of employees of something they may value: the right to choose to support their union.

Additionally, if unions offer concessions to entice boards to extend contracts, school employees will have to pay the price. Obviously, for districts struggling financially this may be needed, but unions might go further than this to protect their interests. 

An extended contract might also artificially limit what teachers and other school employees could earn in the future. If Michigan’s economy continues to improve, schools may see a boost in funding. But since unions would resist opening up these contracts, school employees may not be able to benefit.

On the whole though, not much will change for school districts as a result of Michigan’s right-to-work law. They’ll still be required to bargain with established unions under largely the same rules.

But districts could benefit if unions, now having to earn their employees’ support, pay closer attention to the interests of their members and represent these at the bargaining table. A more satisfied workforce is in the best interest of every district.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.