March 7 2014
Jillian Kay Melchior
Two Michigan teachers will finally be allowed to end their union membership in the Michigan Education Association and will be refunded any dues they paid during this school year, according to a settlement agreement signed this week.
William “Ray” Arthur, a teacher and wrestling coach at Petoskey Senior High School, and Miriam Chanski, a Coopersville kindergarten teacher, tried to quit the teachers’ union after Michigan adopted legislation to become the 24th right-to-work state in the U.S.
Both Arthur and Chanski wrote letters informing the MEA that they wished to leave, but neither was aware that, according to an obscure part of the union’s 1973 bylaws, members can resign only during the month of August. Though the information for the August opt-out period is technically on the MEA website, it is buried and doesn’t pop up in most simple searches.
“The unions were trying to maintain their membership,” Arthur tells National Review Online. “They were very good at getting out the message on how you could remain in the union, continue to pay your dues through your credit card or checking account or savings account — but they were remiss in giving you any information at all, zero, about how to leave the union.”
The MEA claimed both teachers would have to wait until next year, paying hundreds of dollars in union dues before they had another chance to resign.
“It didn’t make sense, and I think it was just a way for the unions to stop the bleeding of the membership and, especially, to stop the bleeding of the money,” Arthur says. Represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, he and Chanski filed a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
The MEA probably felt pressure to capitulate after national media, including NRO, Fox News, and National Public Radio, publicized Arthur and Chanski’s cases, says Dan Armstrong, a spokesman for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
“The MEA backed down and said, ‘We’re going to let these people out, they don’t owe us anything,’” Armstrong says. The MEA did not return NRO’s phone and e-mail messages before deadline.
The MEA has previously claimed that only 1,000 to 1,500 of their 112,000 active members resigned after the right-to-work law passed in Michigan. But the union’s executive director, Gretchen Dziadosz, admitted last month that 8,000 of its members were currently not paying dues, which suggests that many more had tried to leave but were unaware of the established timeframe for resigning.
Altogether, Michigan’s right-to-work law costs unions an estimated $46.5 million a year in lost dues. In reaction, Michigan unions have used questionable tactics to retain their shrinking membership. Some, like the MEA, have allowed only very limited opt-out periods. Others negotiated new contracts before the right-to-work law took effect; these contracts lock existing members into the union until the next negotiation, which, in one instance involving the Taylor Federation of Teachers, was a decade away.
The MEA settlement for Arthur and Chanski explicitly states that “acceptance of [their] resignation from membership based on extenuating circumstances shall not be construed as an admission to any claim or liability in any proceeding which may arise by other persons.”
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is also representing school employees making similar claims in two separate cases, one involving a paraprofessional in Clarkson and another involving four teachers in Saginaw. And the number of teachers contesting that limited opt-out period may soon increase significantly, if the 8,000 figure for members delinquent on their dues payments is any indication.
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— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for National Review as a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center. She is also a senior fellow for the Independent Women’s Forum