Michigan 2014 – The War on Teachers Rages-On

*Updated 6:15 pm June 24, 2014

The war on Michigan’s teachers rages-on with new developments on several fronts as the midterm election approaches.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is in full-scale battle mode with its effort to turn teachers away from the Michigan Education Association. They recently unveiled their latest weapon — a website directed at educators to encourage them to opt out of the MEA during the time that is contractually specified in August. The website boasts a meager seven testimonials from teachers who left the union, plus a calculator to estimate the “savings” from not paying union dues, and an offer to provide an email reminder with an opt out form as August approaches. A link to their Facebook page is included which, as of this writing, has 22 “likes”.

One of the handful of disgruntled Michigan educators working with the MCPP recently appeared on FOX News with Neil Cavuto. MCPP Labor Policy Director, F. Vincent Vernuccio, brought along recently retired teacher, Lisa Jelenek from the Laingsburg Public Schools, to bemoan that her credit rating may be in jeopardy over non-payment of her $1,000 MEA dues. A sum which she refused to pony-up after she neglected the opt out window, claiming it wasn’t her fault for being unfamiliar with her contract.

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It’s true, the MEA has initiated collections procedures against non-payers. In 2013, about 1 percent of the union’s 150,000 members chose not to pay their dues, and that’s about the same number they expect this year. While members may have pled ignorance last year as to the specifics of opting out, not so this August.

In that same FOX interview, Vernuccio said that MEA members are unhappy with their union leadership for engaging in politics, asserting the union “has been wasting their money on candidates that aren’t winning”.

Well, the union has in fact taken a different approach this election year.* Instead of automatically backing the Democrat (where there is one), they have chosen to endorse some Republicans over Democrats. The MEA PAC ruffled some Dem feathers and surprised at least two teachers with their endorsement of Republican Rich Perlberg who is running for the open seat in the 42nd House district. Among the field of four Republicans and one Democrat, the MEA bypassed the Dem, a teacher, along with GOP candidate Dale Rogers, a dues-paying member of the MEA — for 32 years. In his 2012 bid for the 42ndRogers received financial support from the MEA — contributions for which he is now taking heat, with another candidate in the crowded primary race questioning his loyalty to the party. Livingston Daily.com reports that Perlberg, a former Press & Argus chief, was blindsided by their unexpected support, saying “There was a time I would swear the MEA had a picture of me on their dartboard”. The PAC additionally is backing another GOP contender for the 47th in Livingston County, Hank Vaupel, among a field of five Republicans and one Democrat.

Why back Republicans? The MEA’s campaign consultant, Don Noble, explained that the PAC looks at a variety of factors, including how well the candidate interviews, the political realities of a particular district, and how well their campaign is being run — i.e. Do they have the structure, dedication and money to win?

It appears that in Livingston County, the MEA is betting on the winning horses and hoping for a payoff in the form of friendlier lawmakers, or at least those that are not openly hostile.

Yet, the political war rages on.

In addition to this year’s opt out blitz, the MCPP has also been engaging local unions in a series of lawsuits over teachers that felt they were being trapped in union contracts which were negotiated just prior to the day Michigan’s right-to-work law was enacted, along with a small number of litigants who claim they missed the opt out window and can’t wait for the next annual opportunity. A baffling development for the latter group, considering litigation of this sort can take years to resolve, and with the so-called “loss” of $1,000, it simply begs the question: Who’s actually funding this legal assault?

Another phalanx in the war on Michigan teachers is an effort to balkanize union members by assisting smaller school districts in breaking-away from the MEA, and thereby weakening their collective bargaining position. This happened last year in Roscommon Public Schools — a development lauded by the media division of the MCPP in a video intended to provide a blue print for leaving the MEA. The district voted to form their own small independent union, so teachers could save several hundred dollars a year in lower dues. They turned to the Association of American Educators, a sham union group, for assistance with services lost in the move. The AAE has been attempting to lure teachers as a union look-alike, but a visit to their website clearly shows they don’t support even the most basic of organized labor principles:

AAE believes that professional educators should belong to an organization that promotes their profession above personal gain.

AAE believes strikes and boycotts are detrimental to students and to the reputation of teachers as professionals.

AAE does not engage in collective bargaining. We believe that collective bargaining focuses on what’s best for adults, not necessarily students.

The MEA is firing back with direct mention of the destructive bent of the MCPP, the AAE and their corporate allies. MEA President, Steve Cook, has mailed a letter to all 150,000 of its members. To the point:

Unfortunately, there are powerful interests that do not support the work you do, or even public education as a whole. Groups like the Mackinac Center, the Association of American Educators (AAE) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have lobbied politicians in Lansing to pass laws harmful to both public schools and school employees. Massive funding cuts to public schools have hurt students in the classroom with the loss of programs and a shortage of materials. These same cuts have hurt teachers, faculty and support staff by reducing wages, benefits and pensions. Further, attacks on collective bargaining rights have sought to weaken our strength at the bargaining table.

The same corporate interests that fund these anti-public education groups contribute large sums of money to Governor Snyder and legislators who led the attack on public schools and school employees. Lansing politicians, along with these extremist groups are playing a slick game. While they attempt to destroy public education and pave the way for more corporations to enrich themselves with taxpayer dollars, they want school employees to blame their union for the hardships they are enduring.

Some strong and accusatory words from Cook. His words have gotten him into a little hot water recently with Betsy DeVos. The former chair of the Michigan Republican Party has threatened to slap Cook with a defamation suit over his reported claim that she verbally bitch-slapped lawmakers in the hall over right-to-work legislation. The original assertion was reported by MIRS News Service citing a speech Cook made to retired union members at a conference in East Lansing. MLive reports:

“Mr. Cook blamed former Michigan Republican Party Chair Betsy DeVos for hauling GOP senators out into the senate lobby. Once there, he claims DeVos told senators if they did not vote for Right to Work she would run someone against them and finance their effort. He described it as a ‘threat’ to the retirees.”

DeVos’ legal team retaliated with a letter to Cook demanding a retraction of the claim, (in which they refer to right-to-work as “freedom to work”), asserting that DeVos was not in Lansing on that particular day.

Without knowledge of the veracity of either party’s claims, if the threatened libel suit moves forward, it will make for some interesting unintended consequences for DeVos. First, the immediate effect will be the impact of the discovery phase of litigation — interrogatories and depositions will provide a whole host of unwelcome questions for lawmakers and their aides: What is the nature of the relationship you have with the plaintiff? What was the content of your communications? Did DeVos discuss the pending legislation with you or your staff? Did a proxy of DeVos contact you regarding the legislation? What did they say? 

Libel suits are a sticky wicket in terms of proof. There are four elements required as a cause for action:  1. A defamatory statement must be made; 2. It must be published to a third-party; 3. The speaker knew, or should have known, it was a falsehood; and 4. The statement caused injury to the plaintiff.

These are not as easy to prove as one might think, especially the third and fourth. If DeVos truly intends to follow through, she should be prepared to have intimate details of her personal life laid bare to meet the injury requirement. Her lawyers must come to court armed with medical records and depositions demonstrating the level of her distress. If not that, they would need to provide evidence that she suffered a tangible financial or professional blow due to Cook’s reported statements.

Not likely, but her strategy is probably more one of harassment through leveraging the bottomless pit of DeVos dollars to sap the MEA coffers with endless litigation.

Personally, I hope the MEA takes-up the challenge. Those lawmakers and their aides deserve a good grilling. Ms. DeVos may have some chickens come home over this one too.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

* MEA PAC money is not a portion of union dues.

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1 Response to Michigan 2014 – The War on Teachers Rages-On

  1. Kathryn Durbin says:

    Amy, I am on the executive board of Roscommon Area Public School’s teachers’ union. If you want the REAL story behind our leaving the MEA, please contact me. Steve Cook has been lambasting us in the press and the information he is spreading is inaccurate. We have no affiliation with the Mackinac Center whatsoever – they use us as their “poster child” because we successfully decertified from the MEA, however we are strongly PRO-UNION. Our reason for leaving the MEA was a simple customer service issue… we felt that we did not receive the services to justify sending them nearly $75,000 per year. Up to that point, we had handled nearly all of our own grievances and had bargained all of our own contracts. Most years, we received calendars for our teachers and a few 3-ring binders for our negotiators, filled with information we already had researched ourselves. We wanted to continue a relationship with the MEA on a PAC level, but MEA refused to allow us to continue to send PAC dollars for teacher issues at the state level. As for AAE, it was offered up only as a suggestion to those teachers who wanted to continue their liability insurance. Several of our members chose not to go with AAE because they are far too conservative and their idea of “school reform” runs much too parallel to the Mackinac Center. We also met with local insurance providers so our teachers could add personal liability policies to coverage they already had. Indeed, several of our teachers have chosen to go without liability insurance. I feel like much of our bad press from the MEA is sour grapes. I know you are only going by the information you were given, but if you would like to get our side of the story, I’d be happy to talk to you more about what happened from our perspective.

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