MEA member Joe Ligaj has a blunt message for school administrators and state-level policymakers concerned about educator shortages: If you pay them, they will come.
“This is just basic economics—Econ 101,” the president of the Lincoln Park Education Association (LPEA) said. “There’s a labor shortage, and the way to address that is through the contract: higher wages, benefits and working conditions.”
Ligaj says the LPEA bargaining team last year finalized the best contract in the state. The new top-step maximum for a teacher with a master’s degree in the district reaches $107,200 in year three of the contract, and “I haven’t heard of anyone having a higher master’s max than 107,” he said.
Five years ago, a newly elected LPEA executive board went about goal-setting by asking what could be done to most benefit students in the high-poverty district in metro Detroit’s Downriver region.
“We saw the writing on the wall back then of the shortages and everything we were headed for, and we concluded the best thing we could do is to have a goal of getting the best contract in the state of Michigan. We wanted to fill our classrooms with the best talent.”
By at least one measure, the strategy has worked. The district operates an autism program servicing 15 school districts with 25 classrooms, and despite being in a high shortage area the program is fully staffed with certified educators – including Ligaj, who has been teaching there since 2003.
“Remarkable, right?” Ligaj said. “If you look at programs similar to ours, they have long-term subs in those ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) rooms because that’s one of the hardest special education certifications to fill. We have 100% certified staff, and that’s because of the contract.”
A few factors played a role in the LPEA’s bargaining success, Ligaj said. First, every educator but one in the bargaining unit is a dues-paying member – 349 out of 350 – and all agreed during building-by-building union meetings they would do whatever was necessary to achieve contract goals.
“Having everybody on board creates a sense of solidarity and a sense of family, really, that we all lean on each other. We’ve been through tough times together, and we’ve been able to withstand everything and stand together in unity.”
The LPEA got district leaders to reopen a five-year contract two years in for salary and benefits reconsideration. In addition, the LPEA got the district’s other unions on board – a support staff unit represented by AFSCME and the mid-level administrator’s union.
“We negotiated this contract with all three unions on board working together as one collective force,” he said.
Other highlights of the deal include a two-step jump for everyone, increases in dental and vision coverage, and a 40% boost in Schedule B payments. Altogether the mid-contract reopener resulted in the best contract in Lincoln Park since 1982, Ligaj said.
Once an at-risk youth who was mentored to graduation and success by a teacher at an alternative high school, Ligaj said building the strength of his members and union has been rewarding. “Other than my wife and my kids, it’s the proudest thing in my life to represent them.”
As we head into bargaining season, many MEA units that inked deals last year have reported improvements in the wake of an historic state education budget for this year and nearly $6 billion in federal COVID-relief funding for Michigan schools to spend over the next five years.
The shift is a welcome change from years following a $1.8 billion business tax cut enacted under Gov. Rick Snyder in 2011, which forced devastating cost-cutting in schools and moved the state toward crippling educator shortages now seen across nearly every education job category in the state.
Support staff units are bargaining wages and benefits improvements. In Ontonagon, the Education Support Professionals (ESP) union negotiated pay for an increased number of snow days and sick leave payout on retirement, in addition to significant boosts to hourly wages and ancillary benefits.
In Charlevoix-Emmett ISD, bus drivers got a two-year contract extension with wage improvements to four years covered by the contract of 15-2-2-2%, with minimum pay guarantees, added holidays, and greater flexibility in use of personal days.
Hourly school employees have been seeing multi-year increases in many cases, said MEA Bargaining Consultant Craig Culver, whose job is to support bargainers at the table with information and resources.
“Beyond competitive wages, one way we’re seeing to attract and retain our support staff has been to expand eligibility for insurance – by including family members and reducing the number of part-time employees who fall under the threshold of working hour requirements for eligibility,” Culver said.
In Calumet, a unit that includes custodians, maintenance workers, and paraeducators won a 17.5% wage increase on schedule and significant increases to benefits, said MEA UniServ Director Hans Wienke, who works with the group.
“A local business started increasing their employment,” Wienke said. “It became clear the district had to increase pay to be competitive, and my group also wanted a bump in their insurance coverage.”
In some places, bargainers are addressing educator shortages by seeking hiring and retention bonuses to be paid with one-time federal money – often in addition to on-schedule increases.
A support staff unit in Southgate representing employees of a center-based school for emotionally impaired students bargained steps, plus a bonus and 4% increases on schedule (additional 1% at step 5) in year one, 2% in year two (additional 1% at step 5) and longevity raises added to top steps.
Bargaining team member Sarah Smith, a program assistant at Beacon Day Treatment Center, said the goal was to attract new employees but also to reward the people there now and encourage them to stay. The students’ behavior is challenging, and pay must keep pace with demands.
“I’ve been here for nine years and I’ve established relationships with staff and students, so I understand the students’ behavior is not directed at me,” Smith said. “You care for them and you’re there to help them, kind of like a parent.”
This was the second contract she helped to shape, which she always wanted to do because her father was a union welder, “and we were always talking about how important it was for people to be treated fairly.”
Similar arguments secured hiring bonuses for newcomers and “commit to work” payments for returning staff at Gwinn Area Community Schools, a rural district in the UP’s Marquette County, where experienced educators were being poached by higher-paying neighboring districts in recent years.
Because openings are so hard to fill, the district wanted to give new hires a bonus for signing on, but head bargainer Jessica Gustitis asked, “What are you going to do for us—the ones who’ve gotten this far?”
The team negotiated retention pay. For three years, teachers in Gwinn will receive $1,000 at the start of the year, another at the semester break, and a third at the end of the school year. “That’s $9,000 in your pocket that we haven’t ever had before, so it’s awesome,” Gustitis said.
Since 2011, “We kept getting reduced wages or we wouldn’t get anywhere in a contract negotiation,” she added. “We’re never going to recoup our losses from what happened from 2011 to 2020, but this was a start.”
On top of one-time money, the team negotiated a 2.25% on-schedule increase; additional steps for everyone except new hires, to address losses from the previous decade; and increases in dental, vision, and long-term disability.
For Smith – a 21-year veteran of the district – the new contract would mean an additional $20,000 in pay over three years. Teaching is always hard, but the past two years have been exceptionally difficult and the needs going forward will be great. “With this, people feel more appreciated,” she said.
In Allen Park, the bargaining team won a very good contract for which the groundwork was laid in recent years with members of the local union working to pass a bond measure and elect school board candidates who value public education, says local president and bargaining team leader Joel Burkey.
“With those two things, people saw that when the union gets behind something we can make it happen,” Burkey said. “Our membership is well above 95%, which is hugely important in all of this.”
One part of the new contract he’s most proud of is the added steps for members based on their date of hire and number of years stuck in a step freeze, instead of advancing on schedule, since 2011. In addition, the master’s maximum is close on the heels of nearby Lincoln Park at $99,000.
“I know in one case, there was a teacher who—because of these improvements—chose to stay,” Burkey said. “He was being poached by a district that was going to put him at the top of their salary schedule, which would’ve given him a $25,000 raise.
“He was on the phone with me, and he said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Well, I think we’re going to get this contract done. And while you may enjoy getting to the top quicker there, it won’t be long before we’ll be ahead of you.’ He decided to stay as a result of that.”
However, even the strong contract wasn’t enough to prevent some earlier-than-planned retirements this year, and that loss of veterans’ wisdom and perspective is lamentable for Burkey, a 31-year U.S. history and government teacher.
What he laments is the fact his entire career has been spent inside the stifling bubble of cynical “market-based” reforms and spending declines, which introduced competition and “performance” incentives in a public service arena such as education – and proved to be an utterly destructive failure.
“I think it’s safe to say that 30 years into this experiment, all it’s done is divide the resources, create a bunch of high-stakes testing that doesn’t really assess student learning, and create a teacher evaluation system that has driven a lot of people out of the profession,” he concluded.
Negotiating a great contract is Burkey’s way of fighting back. “We all know the best thing you can do to improve instruction and strengthen your district is to hire and retain strong teachers. This competitive salary schedule will help us do that.”
MEA Resources Aid Bargainers
MEA provides a wide range of resources to support bargainers at the negotiation table, from financial reports and analyses to strategic advice and information on changes to laws governing the process.
Bargaining teams anticipating upcoming talks can schedule professional negotiation tune-ups, offered by MEA’s Statewide Bargaining Consultant Craig Culver and Labor Economist Tanner Delpier, on innovative ways to spend federal COVID-relief dollars and other current hot topics.
The recommendations and advice are developed through MEA’s Statewide Bargaining Strategy and Implementation Team (SBSIT) – made up of MEA staff from across the state – and the Long-Range Bargaining Committee, comprised of members from the MEA Board of Directors.
“We keep a pulse on an ongoing basis of new emerging issues and strategies,” Culver said. “Some of what we produce is prototype language that can be bargained to address issues, and the other main thing we produce are advisories and information on how bargainers should approach these issues.”
Detailed financial reports produced by Culver and Delpier show bargaining teams how much money a district has to spend, how the district has spent revenues over time, and how much a specific proposal will cost the district.
“We held a recent tune-up in Houghton and Marquette, and the turnout was huge,” Culver said. “There is a lot to talk about.”