Politics & Government
11:34 am
Wed March 20, 2013

Commentary: Punishing the students

Lessenberry commentary for 3/20/13

Today I am going to talk about something in which I could be accused of having a conflict of interest. Normally, we try not to do that, and if it were only something affecting me, I wouldn’t. But the people really being threatened here are thousands of young people in Michigan, and the state‘s future.

I am talking about a vote yesterday in a state house of representatives subcommittee designed to punish schools and universities who agree to contracts with their faculty and staff that lawmakers don’t like for ideological reasons. This has to do with the anti-union, right to work legislation that was rammed through a lame-duck session of the legislature last December. This bill doesn’t take effect until eight days from how, so technically Michigan is not a right to work state yet.

Knowing this was coming, a number of schools, including the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, where I teach, negotiated new contracts or extended current agreements that preserve union rights for the duration of those contracts.Wayne State’s contract preserves union rights for the next eight years.

Doing so is perfectly legal, since the right to work law isn’t in effect yet. But it made Republican ideologues furious. They control the legislature, and yesterday, that subcommittee voted to withhold fifteen percent of state funds from any university that signed such a contract. The committee chair, Al Pscholka, said the schools were “trying to circumvent state law.”

This is outrageous on a number of levels. For one thing, the law isn’t in effect yet, and the schools had a perfect right to make these agreements. There’s a cynical slogan that Republicans “are always in favor of local control, except when they’re not.” That is to say, except when local units of government decided to do something they don’t like.

Michigan’s three major universities, are legally autonomous entities whose boards of governors are elected by the voters of the entire state of Michigan. They have more claim to speak for the people than any local state representative could ever have.

I could survive without the one percent plus pay raise this contract provides me. But what these lawmakers voted for would punish thousands of struggling young people at Wayne State, most the first generation in their families to go to college, most trying to both work and go to school.

Our lawmakers already have been crippling our future. For years, they’ve been cutting appropriations for higher education, cutting them more than any other state. Cutting funding for higher ed, just when Michigan needs it most.

The Wayne State contract doesn’t force faculty members to join the union; they can instead pay a service fee or donate to a scholarship fund instead of paying union dues. For lawmakers to say the universities were trying to get around state law is particularly contemptible, given that they rammed right to work through on a single day without the normal committee hearings.That’s because they knew that otherwise, it would have been defeated.

Governor Snyder has said that if universities are bargaining in good faith, they shouldn’t be punished. He owes it to today’s students to veto any attempt to punish their schools for negotiating contracts they have every right to make.      

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.