Will MEA Lose Its Grip?

The Michigan Education Association, long one of the largest and most powerful affiliates of the National Education Association.  Its power and ability to collect forced dues has been curtailed by Michigan’s Right to Work Law.  The MEA has worked tenaciously to keep its power over teachers by scrambling to keep every teacher paying dues whether he or she wants to be represented by the MEA or not.

Rick Haglund has the story in The Bridge.

Michigan’s largest teachers union is struggling to keep a toehold as change-minded foes with growing momentum seek to topple the MEA — one of the state’s traditional political giants.

The 152,000-member union’s finances are deteriorating. Its growth strategy is uncertain.

Such traditions are coming into conflict with parent and citizen expectations, however. Statewide polls in 2012 found more than half (59 percent) gave Michigan public schools a “C” or worse for their work; only 7 percent judged them with an “A.”

“If you look at it through a business lens, the MEA has had no real competition and has allowed themselves to be less responsive to their members,” said Ari Adler, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus. “With Right to Work, they are afraid of competition and they are afraid of being held accountable by their members.”

The outcome of this clash, which pits the MEA and the much-smaller Michigan arm of the American Federation of Teachers against powerful interests seeking to continue to zap the power of public sector unions could determine the direction of K-12 education policy in Michigan for years.

Among those forces are RTW advocates, including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Gov. Rick Snyder, who is promising a continued major overhaul of public education.

“We are the only one with the collective power to fight back,” counters MEA spokesman Doug Pratt said. “The MEA has been around for 160 years because people care about public education.”

No one is suggesting that the MEA, which last year took in $122 million in receipts and has nearly $65 million in assets, is about to go under.

But it faces serious challenges in the most hostile political climate toward the union in memory:

–The union is rapidly burning through cash to pay rising expenses and exploding staff retiree costs, which total more than $200 million — three times the union’s total assets.

–Membership has fallen nearly 7.5 percent over the past seven years (from 164,000 to 152,000) as school districts have laid off staffers in response to declining enrollment and tightening budgets.

–Michigan has fewer students to teach. From a recent high of 1.71 million in 2005, statewide enrollment is expected to dip to 1.53 million by next year. And, with changes in state policy, more of those remaining students are expected to attend largely non-unionized charter schools.

–The MEA is in the midst of an epic political losing streak. Its preferred gubernatorial candidate got waxed in 2010. Its favored political party has no power in the Legislature. And it spent millions of dollars supporting a failed ballot proposal in 2012 that would have enshrined collective bargaining rights in the constitution.

–Even its fabled lobbying power – backed by members in every legislative district in the state – failed to prevent passage of Right to Work last December.

MEA_rev3Wisconsin offers a troubling lesson for the MEA and AFT Michigan. Privately, MEA officials call Wisconsin’s 2011 ban on most collective bargaining by public sector unions “Right to Work on steroids.” Membership in public sector unions there is down more than 20 percent in the past two years.

MEA and AFT Michigan officials say they are responding to these threats by monitoring expenses, constantly communicating with their members on the value of union membership and positioning themselves as the defenders of Michigan’s long-establishment public education system.

Leaders of the two unions also say they’re working more closely than ever on political activities. Among other things, the unions are developing a strategy to overturn Right to Work, said AFT President David Hecker.

“There have long been obstacles in our way,” he said. “We’ve been able to overcome these things before and we’ll do it again.”

But of the two unions, the MEA has long been the 800-pound gorilla. And the gorilla is ailing.