This article originally appeared in the spring 2001 issue of IMPACT!, the quarterly newsletter of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
Teachers and police officers have important jobs to do. That's why they can't afford to spend their time fighting their unions over how their dues are spent. But two recent victories obtained with free legal help from Mackinac Center for Public Policy labor attorneys should hearten all employees whose rights are being denied by workplace unions.
West Branch high school teacher Frank Dame was tired of involuntarily surrendering part of every paycheck to the political and social causes his union—the Michigan Education Association (MEA)—championed, but which he personally opposed.
In April 1998, Dame sent a resignation letter to his local union president and objected to paying any fee not related to the union's duties as employee representative. Under U.S. Supreme Court decisions, public-sector unions can charge nonmembers only for the costs of representing them in collective bargaining situations.
The MEA refused to accept Dame's resignation because it did not fall within the one-month period of each year when the MEA allowed members to resign. Dame would have to continue underwriting all union activities—including political lobbying—until August, when the union accepted resignations.
Frustrated, Dame turned to the Mackinac Center labor team, headed by former National Labor Relations board member and Director of Labor Policy Robert Hunter, for volunteer legal help. Dame then successfully resigned in August and filed unfair labor practice charges against the MEA for refusing his April resignation.
In December 2000, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), which adjudicates public-sector workplace disputes, found that the MEA unlawfully rejected Dame's resignation and ordered the union to reimburse him, with interest, for any dues overcharges occurring after April 1998. The ruling also effectively overturned the MEA's "one-month" resignation policy.
"The principles achieved by my case can help other teachers throughout Michigan experience a measure of freedom," says Dame. "This would not have been possible but for the effective legal assistance provided by the Mackinac Center."
DeWitt Township police officer Scott Ciupak faced similar problems with his union, the Police Officers Labor Council, when he resigned in March 2000. Ciupak knew his rights from reading Mackinac Center studies and commentaries, so when the union threatened to have him fired if he didn't continue paying full dues, he contacted the Center for assistance.
Hunter volunteered to help Ciupak file a complaint against the union with MERC, which scheduled a hearing for late March 2001. Before the hearing, the union relented and agreed to an independent review of its financial records to determine how much spending was political or otherwise not chargeable to Ciupak as a nonmember.
"I am so grateful for the Mackinac Center and its guidance and support," Ciupak told Hunter. "Without your watchdog vigilance, the union would have been able to trample all over my rights."
"The message to union officials is clear," says Hunter. "The law is on the side of those workers who want to make their own choices about how their dues are spent."