Garden City teachers benefit from their commitment, determination

A protracted legal battle ended recently with an administrative law judge from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) ruling that Garden City Public Schools broke the law when it violated the teachers’ contract regarding health insurance coverage. But the real story is the determination and unity of the Garden City EA (GCEA) to make sure their contract was honored and members’ rights were protected.

The crisis began in December 2013 when the district told teachers they would have to choose a new health care plan since their Blue Cross coverage would be ending. Plus the district was moving from paying an 80 percent share of health care premiums to a hard cap. All of this was in violation of the teachers’ contract that is in force until August 2014. 
 
“All along, we were willing to discuss a change to our insurance, but the district told us that they would decide what’s best. Now, MERC has decided what’s best. We couldn’t have prevailed if it weren’t for the help we got from MEA,” said Julie Naughton, Garden City EA President.

Members came to GCEA looking for direction when the district told teachers they had to sign up for what they called a plan with a “benefit level that was essentially identical” to what the teachers had. But, nothing was “essentially identical about the plan—not the coverage or the benefit level. Julie told them, “Stand strong. We will fight this. You have a contract in place that details what your coverage is.”

And stand strong they did with the help of MEA. First of all, MEA filed an injunction to stop the imposition and also filed an unfair labor practice charge (ULP) against the district, claiming they violated the contract by changing health insurance without bargaining. When a Wayne County Circuit Court judge turned down the injunction, MEA pursued the charges with MERC.

Julie said, “The Superintendent was not happy. When members were choosing not to sign up, he told them they would automatically default to the higher deductible plan the district had chosen. He claimed that he was doing the teachers a favor by reducing their premiums.”

For four months, until the MERC decision was handed down, members on a family plan were paying anywhere from $700 to $800 a month, up from the $373 a month they were paying before the imposition. In addition to ruling that the school district had broken the law, the administrative law judge ordered the district to restore the insurance coverage protected by the contract and pay 80 percent of the premium for those electing the insurance. The judge also ordered the district to “make members whole for monetary losses incurred and also pay interest to the employees.”

The school district is appealing the MERC decision—a move that doesn’t surprise Julie. ”The district is still unwilling to talk, even though we’re willing to negotiate. In the beginning, I told them, they could make a $100 phone call to their attorney and avoid a million dollar mistake. Now the ball is in their court.” 

Julie remains inspired by her members’ courage and their commitment to the union, despite the fact that many of them are still hurting financially and the outcome of bargaining for a new contract is uncertain. 

“The members trusted me and stood strong when the union advised them what the best course of action was. I’m proud of them and proud that MEA was there to help,” Julie noted.