Engagement * Bargaining * Advocacy * Justice * Empowerment * Support
by Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
Four years ago, serendipity stepped in to help MEA UniServ Director Mike McGee and a bargaining team in Portland win a good contract for secretaries—and set the stage for an even better outcome in talks this year for the district’s secretaries, paraeducators, and aides.
That late afternoon in 2017, the district’s outside attorney was continuing to use threats of privatization to keep pay low, despite the fact that higher wages in neighboring districts and businesses were luring employees away in a revolving door of staff turnover.
At the table as part of the union’s team was longtime transportation secretary Elizabeth Nurenberg, and McGee pointed to her 20 years of committed service to say dedicated employees deserved better than to be the region’s lowest paid workers.
The lawyer told McGee, “If she’s not happy, tell her to find something else, and we could have Dean (Transportation) replace her within a week.”
Moments later, Nurenberg’s phone rang and she answered despite being off-duty. The dispatcher reported a missing student. “What’s the student’s name?” Nurenberg asked. “OK, I might know. Just a minute.”
As she stood and stepped out, the superintendent—seated across the table with the lawyer—took a call about the missing student. Discussions ensued about whether to call police. Fifteen minutes later, Nurenberg returned and said, “We’ve got him. He’s fine.”
The key to the mystery? Nurenberg’s knowledge of students and families in the district. She figured the missing boy might have gone to a friend’s house without telling anyone, so she made some phone calls, verified his location, and had the student call home. Situation resolved.
“I just leaned across the table and said, ‘If this were Dean Transportation instead of Elizabeth, that person is off the clock already,’—and then I pointed at the superintendent—‘and you would be on the phone with police trying to hunt down this student. You’d have parents who are upset.’”
It was a moment of change for first-year superintendent Will Heath, who pulled the lawyer from both teacher and support staff bargaining tables and offered secretaries a modest increase. This year he agreed with McGee: “These positions are way behind peers in the area, and we need to fix this.”
“This year after reemphasizing Elizabeth’s story and that message—that it’s in the students’ best interest to have dedicated support staff—we were able to get the best contract I’ve ever settled.”
The three-year deal for secretaries, paras and aides included a 5% pay increase per year, he said: “It’s not that we’re making them ultra wealthy, but we were able bring them up to county average, and that will stabilize district staffing with dedicated professionals who directly impact the students they serve.”
Similar tales of bargaining successes echoed across many areas of the state this summer.
In the Thumb, union leaders in Millington shortened the wage scale and added longevity, while the team in Unionville-Sebewaing added new-hire incentives and increased elementary prep time to wage and step increases. In the Great Lakes Bay Region, Essexville-Hampton negotiated teacher salary increases, plus steps and restoration of all previously frozen steps by next year.
“It’s been a good year to bargain,” said MEA UniServ Director Kurt Murray, who represents districts in the northwestern tip of the Lower Peninsula.
Murray agreed to reopen the bus drivers’ contract at Charlevoix-Emmett ISD with two years left to go, and the team secured a four-year deal with raises of 15% the first year and 2% for each of the next three years, plus additional paid holiday hours, among other improvements.
“These drivers transport some of the most vulnerable students in the ISD region, so we need these positions fully staffed with dedicated individuals,” Murray said.
Drivers have been in short supply everywhere this fall. The pandemic has worsened an already serious educator shortage in the state. Last year, educator retirements rose by 40% in Michigan on the heels of an eight-year 70% plunge in the number of college students enrolled in teacher prep programs.
In July Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a state K-12 education budget that brings historic investment in Michigan schools—more than $17 billion—and per-pupil funding at $8,700 that is equal across all districts for the first time since 1994.
At the same time, Whitmer signed appropriations bills to send $4.4 billion in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to Michigan schools. Distributed based on need according to Title I formulas, the so-called ESSER (Elementary Secondary Schools Emergency Relief) funds can be spent over three years.
In such a tight labor market, pulling together a comparison of wages in the region can move administrators reluctant to spend rainy day funds and one-time ARP money, said Deb Larson, who helped to secure a 20% pay raise for Hillman paras this summer.
“This is a people profession,” Larson said. “OK—call it one-time money, sure. But you have to be able to retain people.”
Larson brokered the same deal for Alpena’s bus drivers, a move that hikes starting wages from $14 to $17. Yet even so, Alpena Schools—like many others—began the school year short of regular and substitute drivers for routes that cover the district’s 604 square miles.
In Local 1, a Multi Association Bargaining Organization (MABO) representing nearly 3,000 educators in Macomb, Wayne, and St. Clair Counties, nearly all of the 13 districts that fall under the MABO’s umbrella bargained or reopened contracts this year.
Nearly all wrapped up deals that include retention bonuses to reward and keep teachers who stayed through the COVID years and signing bonuses to draw in new talent, in addition to salary and step increases, said Local 1 President Mary Campbell, a Mount Clemens early childhood special education teacher.
The biggest change for most members: step restoration, in some cases as many as seven steps, Campbell said. “Teachers have sacrificed their salaries for years, and now it’s finally being paid back.”
It’s been a tough decade financially, and the COVID-19 crisis has heaped more difficulties onto teachers, Campbell said, so every increase in pay and benefits is deserved. “Districts are desperately trying to keep their staffs.”
The bargaining team in Grosse Pointe went into this year’s talks with that philosophy in mind, said Ken Ferguson, the local’s treasurer and a member of the team. “We went in believing our teachers deserve the sun and moon, especially after going above and beyond during COVID,” Ferguson said.
Bargaining continued through summer, so when movement began late in the night of Aug. 26, the two sides remained until reaching agreement around 5 a.m. The two-year contract eliminates half steps from the schedule, guarantees steps and on-schedule raises for both years, and increases extra-duty and coaching pay.
“We kept the same dialogue going the whole time,” Ferguson said. “Bottom line is you’ve got the money, and this is how you show appreciation for all we do.”
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