News Story

Union Rushes Contract To Avoid Right-to-Work; 'Put This Whole Nightmare Behind Us!'

Dearborn Public Schools voting on contract days before law kicks in

The teachers' union for Dearborn Public Schools has negotiated an early contract with the district that institutes a pay freeze for five years but forces the employees to continue paying money to the union.

The union president said one of the main benefits of the contract is avoiding the state's right-to-work law.

Michigan's right-to-work law goes into effect on March 28, and new contracts after that allow public employees to decide whether they want to continue paying dues or fees to a union. As a result, unions across the state are trying to open up contracts to lock in membership for extended periods of time — in some instances, eight or 10 years.

While some public school districts and public universities say they merely are renegotiating and not trying to avoid the right-to-work law, the union president for the Dearborn Federation of Teachers cited the law as a main reason for the contract.

DFT President Christine Sipperley wrote in a letter to union members that was obtained by Michigan Capitol Confidential, that reaching a contract agreement now allows the union to keep members financially supporting them while also continuing automatic dues deductions through the school payroll.

"We will not be affected by Right to Work AND we will be able to continue having our union dues deducted through payroll until this contract expires," Sipperley wrote. "At which time, we strongly hope that we have pro-educator leaders back in Lansing and can put this whole nightmare behind us!"

Sipperley later wrote that if members vote down the contract, the union will become "victims" of the law.

Tony Amorose, a teacher in the district, said he disagrees with the union rushing to beat the right-to-work implementation date.

"As a union member who values the strength that unions provide in the workplace, I strongly disapprove of the goal our union had of beating the right-to-work deadline simply to circumvent the new law," he said.

Contracts like these do a disservice to taxpayers, said Steve Gunn, communications director with the Education Action Group, a non-partisan education reform organization based in Michigan.

"People should be able to belong, or not belong, to any organization they want without it affecting their job," Gunn said. "If the administration is siding with the unions against the people without using that leverage to save money, it is inexcusable."

David Mustonen, communications coordinator for Dearborn Public Schools, wrote in an e-mail that the contract is not being negotiated now to side-step the right-to-work law.

"We began discussion before the law was even passed," Mustonen said. "We have also been working to settle contracts that cover an extended period of time (3 to 4 years)."

Mustonen added that the district has been planning the contract since last fall and the contract will be voted on by the union and school board early this week. 

The district’s health care benefits are provided through an entity called the Dearborn Schools Employee Healthcare Program run by the DFT. The school district makes contributions to this program for health care benefits and the union shops for insurance for employees. The amount of the contributions to the program is negotiated between the union and the school district. For 2013-14, that monthly amount is $1,088 per full-time equivalent employee.

In her email, Sipperley said the amount from the district into the fund is set for this coming year, but the union will negotiate with the district for the future.

“The amount per FTE is already determined for the next school year, and we will begin negotiating with the district for the following years when we have a better idea of estimated rates and the latest changes in health care reform, for the [2014-15] year and further,” she said.

But Patrick Wright, senior legal analyst at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, said if the union and district re-open the contract for any reason, employees become free to stop sending money to the union.

“If that amount changes, right-to-work kicks in,” Wright said.

The right-to-work law states that it applies, "to an agreement, contract, understanding, or practice that takes effect or is extended or renewed after the effective date of the amendatory act [March 28] that added this subsection."

Amorose said he is "greatly in favor" of the right-to-work law, but he disagrees with the legislature threatening to cut off funds to school districts because he said it "neglect[s] the best interests of all the students." 

Gunn said he can understand if the school board and administration are trying to save taxpayers money, but the union clearly is not.

"The union is selling out its members hardcore to keep the dues coming in," he said.

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.