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The Declining Fortunes of Michigan's Teachers' Union

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For the Michigan Education Association, the last few years must have seemed like a bad dream.

Since Gov. John Engler was elected to his first term in 1990, the 127,000-member union--long considered the most formidable state affiliate of the National Education Asso~c~iation--has met with one defeat after another.

Things got off on a bad foot when the Republican Governor, who had tangled with the union as a state legislator, called for top M.E.A. leaders to step down, said Beverly Wolkow, the union's longtime executive director.

That, however, was just a taste of what was to come.

In 1993, the legislature threw the education community into a tailspin by abruptly abolishing the state's school-funding formula and replacing the property-tax-based system with one based largely on an increase in state taxes. It also enacted a charter-school bill the union had opposed from the outset.

The school-finance measure had left it up to Michigan's voters to decide which type of state tax would pay for education. While the Governor and most education groups supported a plan to raise the sales-tax rate, the union was the main backer of a fallback plan that would have paid for the local property-tax relief by increasing the state income tax. The voters opted for Mr. Engler's approach. (See Education Week, 3/23/94.)

The Governor saw his lopsided victory in that fight as a chance to pursue a more activist conservative agenda.

In April 1994, the legislature and the Governor landed the harshest blow against the union: They enacted a bill that stripped away some collective-bargaining rights and instituted fines for striking teachers. All this in a state that has long prided itself as a champion of labor unions and workers' rights.

Teachers' union members called that move "the April massacre."

A string of articles since June 1993 in Forbes magazine that have skewered the National Education Association did not help matters: In one piece, current and former leaders of the state union were dubbed the "Michigan mafia."

"Their public image has suffered enormously," said Lawrence Reed, the president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, Mich. "They've used these heavy-handed tactics and they just keep getting slapped down."

'Climate of Frustration'

Many state officials say the union's declining fortunes were a long time coming.

"There's been a general climate of frustration about the extent to which contract negotiations have added to the expense of operating schools," said Paul Hillegonds, the speaker of the G.O.P.-controlled House. The Senate also has a Republican majority.

"When we passed the collective-bargaining changes, the [M.E.A.] tried to say it was union-busting," Mr. Hillegonds added. "I think we probably drove them crazy calling it cost-containment legislation, but that's how many of us saw this."

Among other provisions, the law would take away the union's ability to bargain for some school improvements and would make it easier for school boards to hire private companies for certain services.

Ms. Wolkow, the M.E.A. official, said the law illustrates the Governor's strong interest in privatization, particularly in the use of school vouchers.

Many of Mr. Engler's efforts "are targeted at making public schools worse, so there will be more support for vouchers," she contended.

But John Truscott, a spokes~man for the Governor, disagreed.

The union "opposes us on everything," he added. "We're a threat to their complete monopoly on education--and they don't like that."

Mr. Truscott said the Governor also seeks to curtail runaway spending on education by, among other things, bringing teachers' salaries in line with inflation.

Mr. Engler and the legislature have also changed the way the teacher health-care retirement system is funded, filling it on a pay-as-you-go basis instead of setting aside long-term sums.

Union leaders have challenged that move, charging that the state is raiding their retirement money and violating a 1985 legislative mandate to set aside money for the system in advance.

So far the state courts have agreed. The M.E.A. also sought--and won--a temporary stay for enacting the collective-bargaining and strike-penalty law.

Raising the Stakes

But those have been the few bright spots in an otherwise rocky period for the union, which also backed dozens of losing candidates at the polls last year. Mr. Engler was also overwhelmingly reelected at that time.

Mr. Truscott claimed that the union has spent about $10 million in opposing the Governor and his G.O.P. supporters, but added that the Republican Party has never been stronger in Michigan.

"The M.E.A. has raised the political stakes all along and the Governor has met them--and even raised the ante," added Mr. Reed of the Mackinac Center, whose organization has supported Governor Engler's education agenda.

Other observers said the union seems to be taking stock of the last few years, and may be changing its strategy.

"There's some indication that they've gotten the message finally," said William Ballenger, the editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a Lansing-based news~letter. "But you could argue it's way too late."

He and others said they believe there is some dissension within the union ranks, particularly over the way the leadership has handled some issues. But M.E.A. officials disagreed.

Ms. Wolkow said the Governor has tried to paint the union as the villain, part of his plan to devalue teachers and the public schools.

"It was in his interest to have that straw man out in front so there would be an enemy," she added. "He's used us very well in that way."

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