Teachers head to Lansing to protest right-to-work legislation

By: Maria Allard | Warren Weekly | Published December 17, 2012

When members of the Fitzgerald Public Schools teachers union gathered at the state Capitol Dec. 11, it wasn’t just on behalf of the Fitzgerald Education Association. It was for all the middle class, Union President Chris Kriss said.

“We’re fighting for jobs,” she said. “Being 12,000 strong, I hoped we would influence the House and the Senate. I was hoping we would change the governor’s mind.”

But when Gov. Rick Snyder signed right-to-work legislation into law, Kriss felt “saddened.” Right-to-work gives workers the right to choose for themselves whether or not to join a union at their workplace.

Kriss, a corrective reading teacher at Chatterton Middle School, thinks “it’s too early to tell” how the new legislation will impact the district. Kriss said the union is working on an expired contract.

“We have an open contract right now,” she said. “We’re negotiating right now.”

Because of the high number of Fitzgerald teachers who notified school officials last Monday they would be absent Dec. 11, FPS Superintendent Barbara VanSweden decided to cancel classes last Tuesday, as did Warren Consolidated Schools Superintendent Robert Livernois. Both districts treated the day like a snow day. School resumed in both districts Dec. 12.

“Safety and security is a priority for me, concerning our students. As the day went on Monday and into the evening, we realized we were going to have a large number of teachers that were going to be out,” VanSweden said. “I had to make the decision — could we hold school or not?”

Fitzgerald parents were notified through a text message system, local media and on the district’s website. Some students showed up to school anyway, and VanSweden said, “We were able to meet them at the door.”

WCS Spokesperson Robert Freehan would not comment on why the staff members — about 750 of them, mostly teachers — took the day off. “They don’t have to give a reason,” he said.

But newly elected WCS board member Ben Lazarus offered a reason. “We had a lot of teachers who called in to go to Lansing,” said Lazarus, who begins his term next month. “It forced the closing of our schools. I don’t think it’s in the students’ best interest, but the superintendent had to make the best decision.”

Lazarus, speaking on behalf of himself and not the school board, felt educators did not have a say in the state’s new right-to-work legislation.

“I think it needed to be discussed more,” the 2008 Warren-Mott High School graduate said. “I think we could have added some valuable insight into the legislation. We didn’t really have a say in the process.”

Livernois addressed the issue Dec. 11 on the district’s website, stating classes were called off, due to student safety.

“Our decision to close school was based solely on student safety, given the number of staff who called in absent,” the superintendent stated. “The Board of Education and administration did not close school so staff could go to Lansing. Given the high number of staff absent, we closed school for the safety of the students. We are currently reviewing all options related to today’s school closure, especially as it relates to the loss of instruction and the number of staff absent.”

At this point, it’s uncertain how the new law will affect WCS.

“We will still be bargaining with the union, as we always have,” Freehan said. “We will abide by whatever the law says.” Freehan said that, despite the school closing, some employees spent the day working.

Phone messages left at the governor’s office were not returned. On his website, Snyder stated the new law will help create “more, better jobs.”

“These new laws are pro-worker and pro-Michigan,” Snyder stated. “Workers deserve the right to decide for themselves whether union membership benefits them. Introducing freedom-to-work in Michigan will contribute to our state’s economic comeback, while preserving the roles of unions and collective bargaining.”

State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, estimated there were between 12,000 and 15,000 protestors at the Capitol Tuesday.

“It’s very crowded here at the state Capitol,” the legislator said. “It’s loud but well-organized. There’s a lot of angry people. There’s an array of amazing people from different professions coming out against the ‘so-called’ right-to-work.”