2017-09-03 / Insight

Teachers unions holding their own in Lapeer County

BY PHIL FOLEY
810-452-2616 • pfoley@mihomepaper.com

LAPEER COUNTY — As long as there’s been employees, there has been a certain tension between them and management. The first known strike was in 1768 when journeymen tailors in New York put down their needles and threads to protest a reduction in wages.

Working people have always seen a need to protect their interests, but the labor movement didn’t really pick up steam until the waning decades of the 19th century.

The Nation Education Association, which represents 2.7 million teachers nationwide, was founded in 1857. Locally, all but teachers in Imlay City, who are represented by the American Federation of Teachers, are represented by the Michigan Education Association (MEA).

Marty Zmicjko, a MEA director, said the union accounts for about 800 teachers and support staff in Lapeer County. Kristen Wilcox has been president of the Lapeer Education Association for the past six years, which represents the county’s largest school district. She said her local accounts for about a third of MEA’s total in the country.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of workers who are union members nationwide has fallen almost by half since 1983, slipping from 17.7 million workers down to 14.6 million.

And while the Labor Dept. noted the percentage of union-represented workers fell from 20.1 percent of the workforce to 10.7 over that 33-year period, it also noted that wages for non-union employees made on average 80 percent of what unionized employees earned.

That, said Wilcox, is one of the strongest arguments in favor of union membership. “If teachers leave public schools for charter schools or parochial schools, they take a substantial hit in pay,” she said.

She observed that even with the passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan, the vast majority of educators have stayed with the union. She noted in the four years since the state’s rightto work law took effect, only nine educators in Lapeer decided to opt out.

Zmicjko and Wilcox both said that unions, at least in education, are holding their own. Zmicjko noted that while shrinking enrollments have led to staff cuts in recent years, retirements and fewer people deciding to get into education is leading to a growing shortage of teachers.

Wilcox said she had the “great joy” of becoming LEA’s president, just as teachers began to feel they were under attack in 2011. However, she said, things have been slowly beginning to improve and the 18-year teacher said, “This is the best I’ve felt in years.”

Wilcox said she feels unions provide a check and balance in the workplace. “We are the ones in the room with the kids,” she said, adding her members advocate for themselves and their students.

“We feel united. We feel strong. We have a seat at the table,” she said.

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