Michigan teachers are facing a challenge that affects their rights to freedoms of speech and association, yet many may be unaware of how to exercise those rights.

That challenge comes in the form of an assessment to fund a union public relations campaign. The Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state's largest teacher union, is attempting to impose a three-year, $90 fee, beginning in September, on each of its full-time teacher members. The union leadership wants to use the money to boost its image after a series of recent legislative defeats and in the face of rising public anger with the union's stubborn stance against parental choice and other school reforms.

The MEA may find declaring and collecting the assessment for its "Image/Crisis Fund" to be two very different things. Some MEA members are already grumbling about it. As one from a Wayne County community put it angrily, "People like me don't have an image problem but the ones who run the union at the top sure do. Let them pay to clean up their own problem with their own money."

More importantly, U.S. Supreme Court decisions that are rooted in the Constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of association provide teachers with protections against such impositions. In 1977, for instance, the Court decided the case of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, ruling that workers could not be forced to pay for services other than collective bargaining.

In 1986, in Chicago Teachers Union v. Hudson, the Court expanded on Abood and held that before collecting fees, a union must provide an independent auditor's breakdown of the union's expenditures as a basis for its fees, a reasonably prompt opportunity for workers to challenge the fees before an impartial decision-maker, and an interest-bearing escrow account for amounts reasonably in dispute while any challenge is pending.

In 1988, the Court decided Communication Workers of America v. Beck and extended Abood rights to private sector employees. Harry Beck was an employee who objected to a contract between CWA, his union, and AT&T, his employer, that required all workers to pay full union dues as a condition of continued employment. Beck's motivation was that CWA was using his money to support political causes that he opposed. He brought suit on grounds that fees could be used only to pay for the union's collective bargaining, contract administration, and grievance adjustment activities. The Supreme Court agreed with Beck and ruled that he and his co-workers could not be forced to pay fees toward union activities other than those core functions cited above.

In a celebrated case involving a Michigan university in 1991, Lehnert v. Ferris Faculty Association, the Court explicitly added public relations expenditures to those for which dissenting workers could not be forced by their union to pay. In this case, the union could only prove that less than 10% of the plaintiff's dues were used for collective bargaining and was required to refund more than 90% to him.

A private sector worker choosing not to pay for what he isn't required to fund must write a letter to his union stating that he is resigning from the union. This right is guaranteed in Patternmakers v. NLRB (1985). The worker must request that the union comply with the procedures outlined in the 1986 Hudson decision and cease exacting fees not used for collective bargaining, contract administration, or grievance adjustment activities. Once those requirements are met, no unauthorized fees may be deducted from the employee's paycheck. The worker is still obligated, however, to pay all other union charges.

The Michigan Education Association imposes a rule that prohibits its members from resigning at any time other than during the month of August. Though this contention probably would not withstand a court challenge, the MEA claims the authority to enforce this rule under Michigan's Public Employment Relations Act. Since the MEA's "Image/Crisis" fee does not take effect until September, teachers who choose not to pay it may exercise their right in August.

Supreme Court decisions constitute important protections of workers' Constitutional rights. Teachers should know that in the case of this latest assessment attempt from the MEA, the Court has given them an option that their own union is not likely to advertise.