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Persistence pays as Michigan’s highly skilled workers secure big pay raise

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Persistence pays as Michigan’s highly skilled workers secure big pay raise
By Ezra Kane-Salafia ·
Tags: Momentum Wages

Jim Kwapiszewski, a traffic signal electrician, has seen a lot of improvements to the state’s signal systems in the 15 years he’s been working for the Michigan Department of Transportation.

The state now has 2,500 signals and its system can connect with county and locality systems. Kwapiszewski can troubleshoot and fix problems in the Upper Peninsula from a workstation 400 miles south in Lansing.

“It’s just a monster network, and as we’ve connected more and more signals we’ve all gotten more and more efficient,” he said.

But one thing that hasn’t gotten better over time is the state’s ability to fill highly skilled roles like his — and that’s made the job a lot harder.

“I’m lucky if we get one guy to apply for an electrician job in six months of looking,” Kwapiszewski said in a recent interview.  

Finding workers might get a little better now that the Michigan legislature has approved a new letter of understanding (LOU) covering highly skilled workers, granting them a 27% raise by end of 2025 – 20% from the skilled worker pay scale increase and 7% from an across-the-board increase secured in the regular contract two years ago covering all state employees.

That fight that led to the state’s decision last month to award the skilled worker pay increase wasn’t easy.

In October 2021, members of the Michigan State Employees Association (MSEA)/AFSCME Local 5 and several other unions wrapped up a massive contract negotiation covering Michigan state employees, winning one of the best contracts in memory and securing 7% across-the-board pay raises for 2022 and 2023. MSEA is heading back to the table this summer to fight for another across-the-board raise in 2024.

But MSEA members realized that even those raises wouldn’t be enough to keep the state’s highly skilled tradespeople — electricians, plumbers and inspectors, among others — competitive with the private sector. So they went back to the table to keep fighting for months.

“It meant a lot to me that even while they were saying, ‘Wow this is a great contract,’ thousands of state employees were willing to keep fighting for just a hundred or so electricians.” said Kwapiszewski, who was part of the negotiating team. “The state negotiators kept saying, ‘Well, your benefits are better [than the private sector], your retirement is better, your vacation is better.’ But we knew that wasn’t true. It might have been true 30 years ago, but it isn’t true anymore. And we did a lot of work to be able to show that.”

In the end, because of the strength of the workers standing together, they were able to win the additional 20% raises for skilled tradespeople. Of that, 8% kicks in immediately and workers will receive two more raises over the next two years.

About 350 high-skilled workers will benefit immediately, according to MSEA Executive Director Erik Bailey. He said that number is expected to ratchet up quickly as the state hires more workers to fill what MSEA says are unprecedented vacancies in this job classification.

“I tried for 15 years to get us raises on my own every way you could imagine. Through management. (By) working with the [Office of the State Employer]. Even when they agreed with me, nothing happened. But with the union, we got it done,” said Kwapiszewski “A lot of people worked really hard together, and we were able to push them to get us the raises we deserve.”

He was grateful to his union, which made a difference in his life and lives of others like him.

“Nothing really happens unless you get involved. You can’t just sit around complaining, nothing will change. And you’ve got to be persistent,” said Kwapiszewski, who got involved in his union for the first time in the pay fight. “But you can win.”

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