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Michigan Teachers Locked In
A union offers its members a narrow opt-out window that it tries to keep secret.

Michigan teacher William "Ray" Arthur

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William “Ray” Arthur, a Michigan teacher, wrestling coach, and inductee into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, expected his last year before retirement to be uneventful. Taking advantage of the state’s new right-to-work law, he tried to quit the teacher’s union he’s been required to belong to for 35 years. Now the union is threatening to unleash creditors on him, and he’s fighting a legal battle to pry himself free.

“Pretty much, this is the only negative experience I’ve ever had associated with education,” Arthur tells National Review Online. “These people have not been transparent and honest with me, and I feel like I’ve been tricked into staying in the union. They’re willing to go to court to make me stay in the union and get my union dues.”

Michigan passed right-to-work legislation a year ago this week, but like Arthur, many workers remain bound to their union membership against their will. Unions have searched for legal loopholes that allow them to hang on to their workers — which is hardly surprising, given estimates that they will lose $46.5 million a year now that Michigan has become the 24th right-to-work state in the nation.

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Some of Michigan’s unions have given workers only very narrow windows to opt out, and others negotiated contracts before the right-to-work law took effect on March 28, locking their members into years of additional dues.

“The real positive effect of right-to-work in Michigan may not be realized for another year or two,” says Ari Adler, spokesman for Michigan’s House Republicans and House Speaker Jase Bolger. “We’re waiting for contracts to expire and for workers to be given their true choice. . . . I certainly don’t think [unions] are being up-front with the media or the public or their members.”

Arthur says that because the unions could no longer draw dues from paychecks, the Michigan Education Association began an aggressive campaign last spring to set up automatic payment from members’ bank accounts or credit cards. Arthur did not provide payment information, and in a letter he sent to the MEA and the local Petoskey Education Association at the beginning of the school year, he informed them that he no longer wished to continue his membership.

“They said essentially that I was already a member of the union, and I had missed the window of opportunity to get out of the union,” Arthur says, adding that the opt-out period was limited to August—“one month out of the twelve, 31 days out of 352. . . . When I called the state union, they said it was not in their best interest to send that information out, and that they were not legally required to send that information out. They purposefully kept the window-of-opportunity information from any of their members.”

That may well explain why right-to-work has not yet had the cataclysmic impact on membership that unions like the MEA predicted a year ago. Of its 150,000 active and retired members, only 1,500 opted out in August.

Now the teachers’ union is claiming Arthur owes them $101.25 a month in dues. The coach, represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and joined by six other teachers, has filed a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.

Anne Schieber, a senior investigative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, tells NRO that in other instances, teachers were laid off last year and reinstated at the start of the school year.

“Technically, they weren’t employees in the summer, and they couldn’t have, if they had wanted to, opted out,” she said. “Well, in September, they were reinstated, and the union said, ‘Sorry, too late, you’ve got to pay us for another year.’”

Other unions have tried to get around the right-to-work law by negotiating contracts that extend for years. Michigan’s law gave workers the chance to drop out after contracts were renewed or expired, but legislators couldn’t abrogate contracts that existed before right-to-work’s effective date.

The Taylor Federation of Teachers was one union that took advantage of that loophole. It negotiated a contract that forces teachers to continue paying dues until 2023.

“The union really wanted to get a contract because they believed, rightly so, that people would leave,” one Taylor teacher, Angela Steffke, told me earlier this year. “The school district and the union worked together — they colluded — to come up with this last-hour deal: one, to protect the union and ensure they have steady income, and [two], because the [financially embattled] district needed a plan to present to the state.”

Steffke said that although the union did a poor job of representing teachers, she will be forced to pay more than $7,000 in dues by the time she can finally opt out. She and two other teachers, represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, filed a lawsuit challenging the union’s actions, but the Wayne County Circuit Court rejected it, claiming it should be handled in the administrative system. Last month, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission heard the case, but it has not yet ruled.

The Taylor Federation of Teachers isn’t the only Michigan union that has employed this strategy. Teachers in Warren and Grand Rapids, as well as employees at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University, were locked into contracts lasting between three and eight years. And in January the United Protective Workers of America Local 1 in Dearborn negotiated a contract that keeps workers paying dues until June 2015.

For Michigan workers who are considering whether to exercise their new privilege afforded to them under right-to-work, these cases should be instructive. Unions would be more effective if they sold membership on its merits; instead, they are coercing workers, holding them captive, and pocketing their money. This short-term strategy is indicative of organized labor’s desperation.

—  Jillian Kay Melchior is a Thomas L. Rhodes Fellow for the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.



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