'This has set a fire under me like you would not believe'
The anger rises in Amy Breza's voice as the Clarkston Community School paraeducator recounts what led her to become an unlikely player in the legal fight against the Michigan Education Association over the state's right-to-work law.
In September, Breza said she was in her classroom with an 11-year-old, non-verbal special needs student when her union president, Jackie Ellsworth, came into her class to demand she pay her $388 in annual dues.
Breza, who makes $11.83 an hour at Sashabaw Middle School, said she was so angry with what transpired she went to her desk and wrote down exactly what Ellsworth said to her in front of the student.
"I am only trying to help keep your job and not get you in trouble with the MEA," Breza quoted Ellsworth as saying.
Like many union members, Breza didn't know the MEA mandates that all teachers can only leave in August. She said it was unclear to her as to how to opt out of the union.
Breza said she told Ellsworth she was with a child and didn't want to talk in her classroom and would deal with it later. She said Ellsworth continued talking to her and gave her the paperwork Breza needed to complete to pay her dues.
"It did not matter," Breza said of Ellsworth's reaction. "She didn't take into account there was a child who couldn't communicate. It was all about the $388 bucks. She couldn't even say, 'Hey, when you are done, can you take a minute?' "
Ellsworth didn't immediately return a request for comment.
Breza said the school's administrators would never have entered her classroom unannounced.
"They have too much respect for me than to interrupt my classroom like that," she said.
That experience changed Breza's views on the union.
"I [had] thought, 'I will just shut up and pay the $388.51'," she said. "[But] this has set a fire under me like you would not believe."
Breza filed a complaint with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission against the Clarkston Paraeducators Association and the MEA saying she wasn't informed about the August window. She is one of a number of teachers from around the state that the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is representing in cases against their local unions and the MEA.
Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Director Patrick Wright said Breza should be eligible for right-to-work because her union's contract was reopened to alter health care provisions after right-to-work became law. By reopening the contract, Wright said the right-to-work law should be triggered.
Breza is scheduled to testify today before the bipartisan state Senate panel that is investigating MEA right-to-work violations.
Breza said her father is a retired GM union member. Her brother and sister-in-law are GM workers. She says both have been supportive of her decision to opt out. Her father offered to pay her dues, but Breza said the run in in her classroom ended any chance of that.
"She tried to strong arm me," Breza said of her interaction with Ellsworth. "She didn't have the respect to call me in. I don't know who they think they are."
In another instance, Breza said a co-worker called the MEA and said she couldn't afford the union dues. Breza said the co-worker said she was told by the MEA: "Ma'am, this is a business."
"Well," Breza said, "If this is a business, I don't want to buy what they are offering."
The MEA didn't respond to a request for comment.