Miriam Chanski v. Michigan Education Association
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is filing a lawsuit on behalf of Miriam Chanski, as well as several other plaintiffs, against the Michigan Education Association over the union's misreading of Michigan's right-to-work law. The union is enforcing an outdated policy referred to as the "August Window," which limits members' ability to exercise their first amendment rights to one month out of the year. To read about our other plaintiffs, please visit their respective pages.
Miriam Chanski, a young kindergarten teacher in the Coopersville Area Public Schools district, had been thinking about her options regarding membership with the Michigan Education Association. Then in May 2013, a union representative came to her classroom asking for her credit card or bank account number in order to pay her dues electronically. Feeling uncomfortable with releasing this information, Miriam decided now was the time to make a decision regarding her membership with the MEA. After careful consideration, she decided to end her membership with the MEA under Michigan’s new right-to-work law.
Unfortunately, the union is not budging, claiming that Miriam missed the “August Window” to opt out.
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. It was challenged by a teacher who wanted to exercise his first amendment rights to 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. In 2004, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, or MERC, accepted this argument over the teacher’s immediate application of their first amendment rights. Now the MEA is assuming that the “August Window” still applies despite Michigan’s recent passage of a right-to-work law.
In September, an MEA representative told Miriam that since she hadn’t paid her dues since she tried to opt out, her name could be forwarded to a collections agency. Says Miriam, “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.”
Deprived of relevant information by her union on how to opt out and subsequently trapped, Miriam has asked the Mackinac Center’s Legal Foundation to represent her against the MEA.
Chain of Events
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.”