School teacher files suit against union over right-to-work

politics | Oct 22, 2013 | By Martin Barillas

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, a Michigan-based think-tank that advocates for free markets, is filing a lawsuit on behalf of eight teacher plaintiffs against the Michigan Education Association over the teachers union's interpretation of Michigan's right-to-work law. According to the Mackinac Center, the teachers’ union is “enforcing an outdated policy referred to as the ‘August Window,’ which limits members' ability to exercise their first amendment rights to one month out of the year.”
 
The MEA announced earlier in October that 99% of its members had decided to remain in the union, despite the right-to-work law that allows teachers to decide whether or not to belong to the union. The complaint against the union claims that union leaders threatened to use several measures to intimidate teachers who wanted to leave. 
 
According to the MEA website “Ninety-nine percent of MEA members chose to stay with their union when given the choice under Michigan’s new so-called ‘right-to-work’ law, MEA President Steve Cook announced to the hundreds of teachers, education support professionals and higher education employees gathered Oct. 5 at MEA’s Fall Representative Assembly in Lansing.”
 
The director for legal affairs at the Mackinac Center, Patrick Wright, contends that the outcome of the lawsuit may affect more than just the eight teachers named in the complaint, who are paying about $1,000 in dues to a union to which they do not wish to belong. In a report by Michigan Public Radio, Wright said, “So the quicker this gets determined the better,” says Wright, “If they are right, and they deserve all the money, they should get to keep it.” For its part, the MEA has declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesman said that the MEA has not yet received a copy of the complaint.
 
 
Among the plaintiffs in the case is Miriam Chanski, a kindergarten teacher in the Coopersville Area Public Schools District in Ottawa County in western Michigan. That area of the Mitten State is quite distinct from southeastern part of the state wherein are found Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw, where the automobile industry and union organizing are still active. Chanski said in an interview "I tried to keep it private, but they wouldn't budge." She added that she feared that her credit rating was at stake.
 
Chanski contends that in May 2013, a MEA representative came to her classroom requesting her credit card or bank account number. Having already thought over her options about MEA membership, Chanski decided not to release her private information to the union representative. After considering her options carefully, Chanski decided to terminate her membership in the MEA under Michigan’s new right-to-work law.
 
However, the MEA contends that Chanski missed the so-called “August Window” for opting out.  According to the Mackinac Center, the August Window was created by the MEA to “limit the ability of their members to opt out of the union except during the month of August.” This had already been challenged by a teacher in exercise of his First Amendment rights and thus become an agency-fee payer (as opposed to a dues-paying member) immediately rather than wait until August. The union responded that the administrative burden, including budgeting and purchasing insurance, would be too onerous to expand the window. It was thus that in 2004 that the Michigan Employment Relations Commission accepted the MEA’s argument over the teacher’s immediate application of First Amendment rights. The MEA contends that the “August Window” still applies despite the recent passage of right-to-work legislation.
 
 
In September 2013, an MEA representative told Chanski threatened to send her name to a collections agency since he had not paid union dues while trying to opt out. Of the experience, Chanski said,  “I am a 24-year-old woman. Who knows what I’ll be doing some day. Buying a house. My credit is very personal to me and it’s something I take pride in.”  Subsequently, Chanski requested representation by the Mackinac Center’s Legal Foundation.
 
Chain of Events
 
The following summary was provided by the Mackinac Center: 
 
In 2012, Miriam Chanski joined the West Early Childhood Center as a kindergarten teacher. That same year, she was given forms to sign to join the Michigan Education Association and her local MEA affiliate, which under the auspices of Michigan’s public-sector bargaining law had been named as her bargaining unit’s mandatory representative. These forms authorized the union to take dues from her paycheck in exchange for representation. She believed this was all part of being a teacher.
 
In May 2013, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit filed by the MEA against Public Act 53 of 2012, which prohibits public schools from deducting union dues from payroll checks. Chanski and her fellow teachers were informed that an updated “process” would be installed.
 
That same month, a union representative came to her classroom to give her the form with the updated process. It required her bank account number or her credit card number, from which the union could automatically withdraw dues. She considered that information private and did not feel comfortable submitting them on paper. The union offered no alternative option so Miriam decided it was time to end her membership.
 
She was told to return the form in one week.
 
Miriam began talking to a few teachers she trusted and a few people outside of her school as to whether there was a form she could sign to opt out, how to make this known to her union, and whether opting out was the right choice.
 
With insufficient information available, she wrote on the top of the e-dues form the union had given her that she was choosing to resign from the union for the 2013-14 school year. She signed and dated the information next to the declaration, as there was no line to do this. She returned it to her local representative and put it in an envelope to keep it private.
 
Miriam did not hear anything from the union until July, when she received a letter from Krista Abbott, the MEA’s local UniServ director. Abbott detailed in the letter that she had received the e-dues form and had noted that Miriam was choosing to opt out of the union for the 2013-14 academic year. She wrote that there was more to the process. There were no formal forms sent with the letter; it merely said to call her for more information.
 
Miriam called her that day and ended up talking to Abbott’s assistant. Abbott was not available that day, nor the next day. Miriam dropped it for the moment and got back to her summer job.
 
During the second week of school this past September, the president of the union at Miriam’s school stepped into her classroom before school and informed her that she had gotten word that Miriam wished to opt out of the union. She asked if Miriam had sent in a separate letter to the MEA. Miriam said she was not aware of a separate letter she was supposed to send. The president told her that she had missed the August Window to resign, and explained further what that was. She also claimed that these dates had been mentioned at every meeting of the past year —which Miriam claims is not true. Miriam was in attendance at every meeting that spring.
 
The president did not have a number for Miriam to call so Miriam said she would find a number online. She called the MEA general help number. This representative looked her up in the system and noted that she was indeed still a member. The representative told her not to worry about it and that the union was still sorting through resignation letters that were sent in. Miriam told her she was not comfortable sitting tight any longer, and that she was concerned about the rumors that credit collectors would call if she didn’t pay her dues. The representative told her “Just like a credit card, if we don’t pay our dues, our bills we will have credit calling us [meaning Miriam’s credit could be at risk for unpaid dues].”
 
Miriam believes she does not owe the union money and that it was her right to resign. She has not attended meetings since she signed the form with her intention to opt out. She is no longer paying dues to an organization she is no longer a part of. She believes information was withheld in order to keep members in the union against their will. As she puts it, “I don’t have a bone to pick with the unions at all. We have a right to opt in or out, but I expect that right to be honored.”
 
Of the efforts on the part of the Mackinac Center in support of employees seeking to opt out of union dues, MEA President Cook was quoted on the union website.  “After Gov. Rick Snyder and Republicans in the state Legislature jammed through right-to-work bills last December, Cook said, ‘Some predicted it was the end of organized labor in Michigan — that it would never survive. Some emails to me said it was foolish to even try to retain members — tens of thousands were waiting to leave. That’s why I don’t read Mackinac Center emails anymore.’”
 
“After the other side set up websites, held seminars and town halls, and sent tens of thousands of emails directly to members, 99 percent of the MEA membership said, ‘No, thank you,’” Cook said. “They stayed with the organization that protects and respects your profession and the important role you play in educating students.”

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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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