By Brenda Ortega and Zach Crim
MEA Public Affairs
UPDATE 7/27 – Gov. Whitmer has signed HBs 4044, 4233 and 4354 into law, along with several other bills designed to recruit and retain educators. These new laws will take effect in early 2024. HB 4356 will be sent to Gov. Whitmer for her consideration soon – please stay tuned for updates.
Back in 2015, state Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) was a teacher and union leader in Airport Community Schools feeling the strain of a salary freeze and paying out of pocket for increased health care premiums when the district’s contract with teachers expired without agreement on a new one.
The financial hit strained his resources—and his patience. It was the moment he first thought of running for state office.
Clearly a law passed in 2011 by the GOP-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder punished only one party to school contract negotiations and tilted the bargaining table in favor of school administrators.
“For a dozen years now, school employees have felt the pressure to either settle a contract or bear that burden of wage and salary freezes while paying health care increases until a successor agreement is reached,” Koleszar said. “It was a punitive law that advantaged one side, and it needed to go.”
Today Koleszar is celebrating the upcoming reversal of that unfair law – alongside other historic changes – from his current vantage point as chair of the House Education Committee, and “It is truly a surreal moment for me,” he said.
In a long-sought win for Michigan’s school employees, the state Senate on Wednesday passed a package of bills restoring workplace rights to educators, which MEA members have fought hard to advance via emails and phone calls to lawmakers, testimony before House and Senate Labor committees, and several in-person lobby days at the Capitol.
The package – which now goes to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for her signature – includes House Bill 4044, sponsored by Koleszar, eliminating penalties on public school employees when a contract expires.
It also features HB 4354 – sponsored by another former educator, Rep. Regina Weiss (D-Oak Park) – eliminating prohibited subjects of bargaining which were enacted to silence educator voice on topics ranging from teacher placement, layoff and recall, evaluation, and discipline.
Also on the way to the governor are HB 4356 – sponsored by Rep. Brenda Carter (D-Pontiac) – restoring the right to bargain over privatization of support staff, and HB 4233 – sponsored by former MEA member, Rep. Jaime Churches (D-Grosse Ile) – allows union members to bargain to have dues deducted from paychecks.
First elected in 2018, Koleszar won again last fall when Democrats took control with slim majorities in both chambers for the first time in 40 years. He and another former classroom teacher, Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), now chair the House and Senate Education committees respectively.
For her part, Polehanki tweeted after the Senate’s evening vote: “Hey Michigan Teachers! Some of you remember the Pre-Snyder years when you could: *Have your union dues deducted from your paycheck/ *Negotiate your contracts without having your wages and benefits frozen/ *Collectively bargain without ‘prohibited subjects’
“The new #MajorityForThePeople just gave it all back to you. Have a relaxing summer!”
Watching elected leaders listen and respond to concerns of school employees is extremely satisfying after so many years of attacks on public education, said Rick Meeth, president of the Bay City Education Association.
After testifying before both the House and Senate Labor committees and returning two more times to participate in union lobby days at the Capitol, Meeth said he felt “relief” at hearing the package of bills had passed the Senate after getting House approval earlier in June.
“I’ve seen the impact that the 2012 repeal of collective bargaining rights has had on my membership, the devastating effect it has had on teachers, and how the resulting teacher shortage has impacted kids—our students,” Meeth said. “I always say what’s best for kids is what’s best for teachers, because teachers are what’s best for kids.”
He has seen support staff harmed most by the law penalizing employees for an expired contract, Meeth added, because they are least able to shoulder the costs.
Combined with a prohibition on bargaining over privatization, the threat of financial penalties for an expired contract often forced support staff units to settle undesirable contracts, creating hardship for individuals and making it difficult to attract and retain employees.
“I am extremely proud to be a member of organized labor in the state of Michigan,” Meeth said, “not only MEA but the trades, UAW, SEIU. All of the unions worked together on this. We had tremendous support from AFL-CIO, tremendous support from UAW, and we had the expertise of MEA staff that worked around the clock to get these bills over the finish line.”
Like Meeth, MEA member Angela Chen persisted in lobbying for the bills on multiple fronts over many weeks, and she also described herself as “relieved” at their passage.
The fourth-year art teacher in Waterford contacted lawmakers to educate them on the bills’ importance. She participated in an in-person lobby day, writing thank you cards and speaking directly to legislators in the House who sponsored and supported the bills.
Chen also encouraged her education friends and colleagues to get involved and add their voices to the cause. She worked with a social justice organization allied with MEA, the Michigan Education Justice Coalition, to get more people calling and spreading the word to more representatives and senators.
“It really was collective action on all of our members’ parts that helped get us to this huge win,” said Chen, who started her career working at a charter school where it was a “constant battle” to get the support and supplies she needed and to prevent more extra duties from being added to her workload.
Chen said the once-prohibited subject she now looks forward to local union leaders being able to bargain is teacher evaluation because the current system is senseless and unfair. (On that note, a bill to amend the teacher evaluation system, Senate Bill 395 – introduced by Polehanki – is expected to get a hearing after the Legislature’s summer recess, so stay tuned.)
“The fact that we can now advocate to be evaluated fairly is a huge thing for me,” Chen said. “I’m an art teacher, and this past year 40% of my evaluation was based off of an [English Language Arts] score for my whole school, rather than what I teach and what I have my license in.”
Seeing collective bargaining rights restored on the same day the Legislature approved yet another historic state budget increase for education gives her hope for the future, Chen said.
“I feel like we can accomplish so much more and we can make public education the undeniable right that it is and have the opportunity to provide quality education for all students,” she said.
That will only be possible if MEA members and others who value public education stay engaged going forward, Chen added.
“It’s important to engage in discourse and stay in contact with your lawmakers so they can hear your voice, and it’s also important to go out and vote, because this wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t elect these lawmakers into the positions they’re in now.”
After Wednesday’s Senate vote, MEA President Paula Herbart issued a statement praising legislative leaders for taking action toward ensuring every student in the state has access to high-quality education.
“By restoring educators’ voices at the workplace, the new Senate and House majorities have shown they are serious about restoring respect for the education profession and fixing the educator shortage,” Herbart said.