Will Michigan Teachers Walk?

Michigan teachers are voting whether to authorize bold actions to challenge the king-like powers of the state's "emergency managers." Public sector strikes are illegal in Michigan, although some teachers (like these Detroiters) have mounted successful strikes. Photo: Jim West.

Faced with a Republican onslaught whose impact could be deeper than that seen in Wisconsin and Ohio, the Michigan Education Association is taking a membership vote to authorize job actions.

The day after busing a 100-member delegation to join the Madison protests in mid-March, MEA President Iris Salters asked her union’s 1,110 local presidents to conduct the votes among 155,000 teachers and school support staff.

A yes vote would authorize MEA “to engage in significant activities—up to and including a work stoppage”—that will “increase the pressure on our legislators” to “end these attacks.” Specific demands on the legislators were not spelled out. The votes are to be conducted by April 14, but the MEA will not release results until after its board of directors meets April 28.

A statewide teachers’ strike has rare precedent in the U.S.—though the Wisconsin teachers did one for two days in February. It would certainly make an extraordinary statement in Michigan, where public employee strikes are illegal. Salters is careful to point out that the vote is not simply about whether to strike. Rather, it would allow the union to consider “a full range of options,” said Salters, who noted that the voting process “has certainly heightened members’ awareness of the magnitude of the situation.”

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and his Republican legislative majority have not directly stripped public employees of collective bargaining rights, as seen elsewhere. Their alternative allows the governor to appoint “emergency managers” over local government and school districts that are in bad financial shape. The managers would have king-like powers to eliminate union contracts, dismiss elected bodies, sell public assets, privatize public services, and even dissolve or recombine cities, towns, and school districts.

At the same time, the governor’s proposed budget—which includes a $470-per-pupil cut in school funding and sharply reduced revenue sharing with local government—would throw many struggling cities and school districts into deeper financial straits. For some, it could make them subject to emergency takeover. The governor’s initiatives, including pay and benefit cuts for public employees and tax measures that shift about $2 billion from working and poor people to the business sector, are detailed here and here.

Teachers are upset over what the governor is doing, says Dwayne Strachan, who teaches and provides computer support for Clare Public Schools, 90 minutes north of Lansing, the state capital. “We put everything we have into our profession,” he said. “It’s hard enough to try to get kids to see value in their education. But then you have politicians and media just bashing everything you do.”

“The crap that is happening hurts me to my core!” adds Lori Lane, a special education teacher in rural North Branch Area Schools, 90 minutes north of Detroit. “I and most of my fellow teachers have written and called our legislators daily. Either there is no response or some automatic reply. It’s very disheartening.”

Grade-Ins

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Teachers are beginning to take action. Some have joined the protests at the Capitol in Lansing, such as the March 16 action that drew up to 8,000.

Many others are taking smaller initiatives locally. One tactic that’s spreading quickly is “grade-ins” at the food courts inside shopping malls. The grade-ins were introduced to Michigan by Franklin Mays, a Spanish teacher in Lansing who saw a YouTube video showing 106 teachers holding a grade-in in Deptford, New Jersey. Mays organized a local grade-in through the MEA Facebook page, and soon other teachers were putting together similar events around the state.

The teachers dress professionally—or wear union T-shirts—and bring their students’ papers or their lesson plans for Sunday afternoon work at the mall. They display signs that say, “Ask me what I am doing,” and many mall customers come up and talk with them, sharing appreciative words for the teachers.

“The grade-ins filled a need,” says Mays. “This seemed like a positive way to protest. We’re trying to show the public that teachers’ responsibilities don’t stop when the day ends. It’s always with us—and especially when there are budget cuts and higher class sizes.”

Lane’s local in North Branch is planning to sell T-shirts that say “Solidarity” on the front and “We ARE the people” on the back. She explains, “Proceeds will go to the poor and homeless in our county, who are also being targeted by our ‘wonderful’ governor.” The local is planning to join with other school districts for a rally in the county seat.

Fear and Hope

One outcome of the MEA’s job action vote is simply getting teachers together to talk about what’s going on in Michigan. Lane, who is secretary of her local and serves on the bargaining team, reports 120 teachers turning out for a North Branch meeting to discuss the vote, in a district with 129 teachers.

“Only one of us had ever struck before,” she said, “and she’s been teaching for 38 years. So it’s really a new experience for us.”

Teachers wanted to know if striking was legal, what the ramifications would be, and how long a strike would be. MEA had issued a second letter advising members to save up enough to cover household expenses for as long as two months. “We don’t make that much money,” Lane said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if teachers struck for a day here or there.” The average salary for Michigan teachers is $55,000, with average starting pay at $36,000.

One teacher at the MEA Facebook page reported five locals voting yes on the job action authorization. But with 1,110 locals voting, the outcome isn’t clear. And the risks are real. The MEA letter acknowledges that teachers can be fired for striking, adding that “there is strength in numbers” and that “a unified action provides the greatest protection to you.”

Some Michigan teachers have struck in the past and avoided penalty. Detroit teachers struck for 16 days in 2006 until a tentative agreement was reached; strikers were not penalized. In 2008, teachers in the Wayne-Westland school district, a suburb west of Detroit, struck for four days. A judge then ordered the teachers, members of MEA, to return to work, while ordering the district not to discipline them.

Michigan conservatives, led by the Mackinac Center—a think tank that receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers—have been quick to scorn MEA for its initiative. A Republican legislator sought to raise the stakes by introducing a bill that would bar a striking teacher from ever teaching again in Michigan.

Whatever the teachers wind up doing, public support will be key. Lane said the bigger districts have already organized meetings with parents. “In Wisconsin, they got the public on their side,” she said. “We need to get people on our side.”