David Hecker: Public sector workers deserve more protections in Michigan

May 31, 2023 2:46 am

American Federation of Teachers-Michigan President David Hecker and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart at a Capitol rally for public schools, June 18, 2019 | Derek Robertson

A great deal has already been accomplished this legislative session. Democrats, who have majorities in both the Michigan House and Michigan Senate for the first time in 40 years, have joined with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to drive large policy changes. This sea change in leadership was accomplished last November, in large part thanks to the work of organized labor.

But much more needs to be done.

It is impressive that lawmakers have expanded the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act so that discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals is finally illegal. They have also repealed the retirement tax that was imposed last decade by former Gov. Rick Snyder and Republicans to fund a tax break for corporations. The Earned Income Tax Credit, which Snyder slashed to fund that same tax break for businesses, has been significantly expanded, and Democratic lawmakers have passed gun safety legislation that will prevent gun violence in our communities.  

Unions praise Whitmer for signing Right to Work repeal, prevailing wage restoration bills

In terms of labor rights, lawmakers have restored Michigan’s prevailing wage law, so that construction workers on state funded projects receive a fair wage. Also, they repealed so-called “Right to Work” laws enacted a decade ago, even though the Janus v. AFSCME decision from the U.S. Supreme Court unfortunately will maintain it for public sector workers.

Our public sector workers deserve to have their rights restored and the Democratic majority is working to make this happen. The people who educate our children, attend to patients, respond to 911 calls, operate public transportation, and maintain sewer and water systems deserve their collective bargaining rights back.

When these DeVos-backed attacks on public employees – most significantly educators – passed, they were along party lines. That is not surprising since Democrats have always been the elected officials who respect and fight for working people, public education and public services. 

Public school employees are the only group of employees who may not bargain for the payroll deduction of dues. Teachers are the only group who can be dismissed basically at a superintendent’s whim rather than by the standard of “just cause” that other public employers must prove. Only teachers are not allowed to bargain over evaluation procedures and standards, placement, discipline and discharge, and many other issues.   

Only K-12 support staff can lose their jobs through a unilateral decision by a superintendent to privatize their work. Only public employees go to the bargaining table partially handcuffed as they bargain for healthcare and are financially penalized when a new contract is not in place before a new one is bargained. Public employers have consistently used this power to stall negotiations until their employees are forced to accept an inferior contract. This was, in fact, the primary intent of the law.  

When the Republican-enacted prohibitions on subjects of bargaining are overturned, it does not mean that suddenly the union will automatically get everything they want in negotiations.  It simply means that the issue must be bargained. It does not mean the employer must agree with every union’s proposal. It means they must negotiate. Every other public employer in Michigan – police chiefs, mayors, public works directors, etc. – have bargained on these issues without any problems. 

Already, Whitmer and the legislative majority have showed up for public schools and working people in big ways. We will continue to work alongside our lawmakers to restore public employee rights and create a better Michigan for working people.


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David Hecker
David Hecker

David Hecker was the president of AFT Michigan. Previously, he was secretary-treasurer of the state federation. A member of the AFT executive committee, Hecker was first elected as an AFT vice president in 2004.