HOUGHTON - Normally, the Michigan Education Association spring rally focuses on negotiation advice. But with laws in Michigan and elsewhere eroding education union gains and threatening the ability to make future ones, Terry LaJeunesse decided to stress another path to negotiating strength: politics.
"Whether you like it or not, bargaining is a political animal," said LaJeunesse, MEA's UniServ director of the 18-A region, which includes Baraga, Houghton and Keweenaw counties. "We have to accept that, and we have to work within the guidelines if we're going to be successful at the bargaining table."
He talked about steps in Michigan that had limited their power, such as reducing the number of negotiable areas and freezing salary steps. It's even worse in Wisconsin under the Gov. Scott Walker administration, he said, since teachers can now be fired at will without just cause.
Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette
State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, speaks at a Michigan Education Association rally in Houghton Thursday night. The rally was designed to persuade members of the importance of the political process in strengthening their negotiating position.
LaJeunesse said the MEA had shrunk down from its former status as an "800-pound gorilla" in Lansing. He said members needed to exercise their power by voting as a group for candidates who act in the interest of public education. They can also take steps such as joining the MEA's screening and recommendation committee, which interviews candidates to determine who the MEA will endorse, and participating in get-out-the-vote efforts.
"I believe what's good for public education in the state is good for the economy of the state and the overall future of the state," LaJeunesse said.
One of the legislators LaJeunesse singled out as representing their interests in Lansing, State Rep. Scott Dianda, past president of Local 5 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, spoke about the importance of teachers.
"I know you all have the passion for educating our kids ... but I know also you took that job because there was going to be security and there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel for you. That's something that's very sacred to me because everybody wants to have a better future, and I know that you're there for the future of this state."
Dianda said local control of districts is paramount. He cited a proposal to create one central school for each county, which he said might work for more compact areas downstate but would mean 90-mile round trips for children in the Copper Country.
"When that kind of conversation comes up, I'm the first one to say, 'You haven't taken a ride in upper Michigan and anything north of Clare to understand that,'" he said. "We're constantly talking about those issues - we're talking about where the kids are going, how they're going to be educated. And when we sit down with higher ed, that's the first thing they want to know."
Dianda said educators would need to be able to counter the long-term planning of the right. He pointed to Gov. Snyder's Education Achievement Authority for failing schools, an idea that had its roots in the Engler administration.
"They want to have private schools, they want these corporate settings," he said. "It's not a path that I or the rest of my colleagues want to take. Corporations are not going to be the future of giving the kids what we need to get them into the future of Michigan. We're not going to look at them as a profit, and we're not going to start making decisions on who is going to succeed and who doesn't based on financial background. It's totally unacceptable and against the constitution of Michigan."
MEA Secretary/Treasurer Rick Trainor said the teachers in the room are the vanguard of teacher negotiations.
"This is a fight for our profession, and to stop a bunch of hateful people," he said. "It's about eight to 10 hateful white guys who have manipulated themselves into positions of power in Lansing who aren't Republicans. Because real Republicans don't ignore history, they don't ignore research, they don't ignore the plight of working people. And these guys in Lansing who are running the show, they do all of those things."
Trainor said MEA members need to take back the terms of the argument. He suggested a list of books on framing messages from Democratic consultant George Lakoff as well as his Republican counterpart, Frank Luntz. Instead of "privatization," which conjures up images of small business owners, he suggested "corporate takeover."
"The other side picks words that are lies," he said. "As bargainers, we have to cut through the lies. And we can't do it if we argue them in their arena."
Steve Lancour, a teacher at Washington Middle School in Calumet, is on the negotiating team for the teachers, which has just started to organize for the coming year.
"I agree with a lot of things they said - I think our education system is under attack right now, and it has been for the last three years," he said. "A lot of the policies and laws that have been passed were done so quickly. Every time you looked there was another law coming through, another policy being passed. I'm sick of that."